Lina Lamont

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

Archive for the tag “Julianne Moore”

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 22nd November 2015

The first Hunger Games was terrific: fresh and exciting, the unsavoury tale of children being coerced into killing children paved the way for how Young Adult dystopia should look, and then spawned too many similarly-themed franchises. The second instalment had its charms (mainly in the wardrobe department) but when Hollywood hit upon dividing the third and final book into two drawn-out movies, it hit a bump in the road.

Mockingjay – Part 2 picks up where its predecessor left off, with our heroes living in District 13 as they form a plan to storm the Capitol. Meanwhile, Katniss is determined to fulfil her own mission by killing the now ailing President Snow (a benign-looking Donald Sutherland who just isn’t evil enough to warrant taking revenge on).

But for a finale, it’s just a bit boring. Apart from watching the team weave its way through the booby-trapped city (these set-pieces provide the only jolts of excitement in the whole film but are indeed nicely executed), the viewer’s biggest stimulus will be matching up what they see on screen with every dystopian trope they’ve seen in the last three years. It’s hard to remember what Katniss and Crew have been up to when they all dress like Abnegants in Divergent. The battle-torn city has echoes of Inception, while the creatures they flee from evoke the Cranks who terrorise those other persecuted teens in The Scorch Trials. The screen lights up only when Jena Malone spits out some delicious bitterness – otherwise, the film’s sole aspect of human interest is the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, which isn’t getting any less equilateral.

Granted, your heart thuds a little to see Philip Seymour Hoffman gracing the screen for one last time (his death during filming meant that a pivotal emotional moment had to be delivered by another character), and Julianne Moore is her usually reliable self, albeit in a one-dimensional part – but Mockingjay 2 is disappointingly low-key considering its importance to this extremely successful trilogy. As my companion said, as the credits rolled: “Well, that didn’t really sing, did it?”

Freeheld

Freeheld is the terribly well-meaning, authenticity-driven true story of a lesbian couple whose cancer diagnosis leads to an historic human rights fight. As anecdote, the tale is shocking, maddening and inspiring. Unfortunately, rendered on screen, its adherence to truth gives the script a by-numbers sensibility which risks undermining its affect.

Although Julianne Moore is an actress of great range who has played many things, initially her 21st century detective with 1970s hair feels a little forced. But from Alzheimer’s sufferer to porn star Moore is an indisputable chameleon, and she swiftly impresses as the awkward, tentative Laurel Hester, a gutsy police officer whose sexual orientation is none of anybody’s damn business. Yet when she falls in love with Stacie Andree, her private life threatens to become very public indeed.

Ellen Page is brilliant as Andree, seeming never more at home in her on-screen skin. Her performance, like the film as a whole, is lo-fi, downbeat and naturalistic, and it is equally warming to see Michael Shannon (99 Homes) in an uncharacteristically sympathetic role. The unexpectedly flamboyant entrance of Steve Carell as an equality-crusading gay Jew therefore feels a little left-field in this oh-so-serious story, but there’s no disputing that once the legal teeth are sharpened, the story steps up its game.

Freeheld is important storytelling told humbly, the injustice at its core sadly still being fought over today.

Still Alice

Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to that time of the year when the trickle of Oscar frontrunners starts to become a flood and we, too, can play like Academy voters to determine who should win.

First up, a truly “Oscar-worthy” film –and I mean that in a nice way – the story of a heralded linguistics professor who develops early onset Alzheimer’s disease. While the dark irony inherent in the set-up is not subtle, Still Alice boasts restrained, natural performances from its entire cast, and perfectly conveys the delicate devastation of watching a loved one slip away.

As is to be expected, Julianne Moore’s central performance is laden with sensitivity and integrity. There isn’t room for the showmanship of Eddie Redmayne’s slow decline as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (for which he is bound to deservedly win Best Actor) – but Moore’s rendering of gradual internal deterioration is astute and may evoke pain for viewers whose experience is projected on screen.

This is Moore’s fifth Oscar nomination, and given she recently took the Golden Globe, this could finally be her year. Experience gained during her long career of playing shattered women (notably Far From Heaven and The Hours, though her range extends also to the hilariously flawed in Maps to the Stars and What Maisie Knew) is none more evident than when Alice conveys the terror of realising she will lose the faculties which have thus far defined her identity. As the disease takes grip, it is equally heartbreaking in a scene where she mistakes her own child for an actor.

In strong support, Alec Baldwin is impressively multi-layered as the husband who must grapple with being supportive as well as selfish. As Alice’s daughter, Kristen Stewart is a particular revelation, nailing memories of Twilight’s Bella into a coffin once and for all.

The hardworking writer-directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, have adapted Lisa Genova’s novel, and are to be applauded for their sensitive depiction of a reality that may be sadly resonant for many viewers. But it is Moore from whom we cannot tear our eyes away, and Moore who should be walking up those steps on the big night.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 23rd November 2014

It’s not that this is a bad movie, but it’s simply not as good as it should be.

The minute the “Hunger Games” books hit the bedside tables of young adults everywhere, a movie franchise was a given. The page-turning, dystopian treatise about young people fighting one another to the death in a gladiatorial contest constructed by an evil Big Brother is now into its third of four cinematic parts.

The first movie set the scene nicely, catapulting a starlet named Jennifer Lawrence into the big-time (and rapidly her first Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook once Hollywood realised she could turn her hand to any role). Unusually, the second film Catching Fire was widely regarded a knock-out, mixing dynamic exposition with another bout in the arena of certain death. It left us on a worthy cliffhanger and with a whole year to anticipate Katniss Everdeen’s fate.

Having directed the second installment, Francis Lawrence (no relation, one is obliged to point out) has slackened the reins on this drawn out and somewhat ponderous sequel which seems designed merely to fill in narrative time before the grand finale of next year’s Mockingjay Part 2.

The performances are solid (bolstered without doubt by the presence of heavyweights Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the darker, distinctly pessimistic tone may inveigle viewers whose threshold for interminable teen love triangles is set low. Stylistically, this episode evokes Ender’s Game and aspects of Edge of Tomorrow, with Katniss recast as the saviour of the rebellion (complete with stirring promo videos and an Angel of Death costume).

However, the earnestly slow pace undermines some key turning points which deliver neither the pathos nor the character shifts they ought to. Although we are spared yet another rendition of arena combat (they couldn’t trot that out for a third go), it’s at the expense of any drama, intrigue or excitement.

Of course, those who have read the books or seen the previous films should see this one – but be warned: Mockingjay Part 1 is not going to set the world on fire.

Non-Stop

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 23rd February 2014

With his latest thriller, Liam “Action” Neeson confirms he has got caught in a loop. Despite stark, atmospheric photography and a curiously eclectic cast, Non-Stop is still essentially Taken on a Plane, none more resonantly than when Neeson’s straight-faced ex-cop growls down a cellphone at his anonymous foe and nearly slips into his now legendary “I will find you…” speech. It would be hard not to laugh, were the plot not, surprisingly, so gripping.

We meet Neeson’s Bill (no more a hero’s name than Brian, really) at the airport, where he squints suspiciously at a plethora of travelling stereotypes before boarding a flight amidst great mystery, thanks to attempts by film-maker Jaume Collet-Serra (who directed Neeson in Unknown) to push this standard action movie into slightly edgier territory. Bill winds up sitting next to Oscar-nominee Julianne Moore, no doubt cast to raise the tone of the piece and attract those for whom Taken on a Plane might be a sequel too far. Events rapidly unfurl as a terrorist threat is delivered and passengers start meeting their end à la Final Destination, as Bill tries desperately to identify the baddy and stop the carnage.

It’s a simple set-up, made all the more compelling by its single location inside an aeroplane cabin, with the obligatory punch-up in the loo and passengers jumping to 9/11-inspired conclusions. With some clever narrative points and many twists and turns, the illusion of long, continuous takes helps to increase the tension as we witness the gradual, sometimes deceitful unveiling of characters and their motivations.

So things seem to be going rather well, despite Neeson’s wooden acting (does anyone even remember the days of Michael Kinsey Schindler?), and then in the final half hour the silliness suddenly descends like a plane in distress, and even Moore can’t save it. If the destination therefore proves to be less rewarding than the journey, at least you’ll arrive with a smile on your face.

Carrie

It sure is a long time to wait for a follow-up. Sissy Spacek made cinematic history back in 1976 as her high school peers drenched her in pig’s blood and created one of horror’s most enduring images. Brian de Palma’s rendition of Stephen King’s novel Carrie is a pretty hard act to follow, so you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would.

Kudos therefore goes to Kimberly Peirce, director of the superbly devastating Boys Don’t Cry (which won Hilary Swank her first Oscar), for delivering a sure-handed if overly faithful update to Carrie’s nightmare in 2013. Peirce knows better than most how terrifying avenging teenage girls can be, and when someone whips out a cellphone to record Carrie’s initial humiliation, it’s impossible not to shudder with foreknowledge of how bad things could get. Unfortunately the plot then fails to exploit cyber-bullying to the extent that it could, which is a missed opportunity to both comment on and utilise a contemporary horror.

Nonetheless, with strong actors like Julianne Moore playing Carrie’s Bible-thumping mom and headliner Chloe Grace Moretz in the lead, Peirce has at least avoided the traditional horror route of casting untalented no-names. Judy Greer is terrific as the extremely interventionist PE teacher (her dressing down of the mean girls is inspirational). If anything it is Moretz who is the double-edged sword – initially she rather overplays the helpless victim, before swiftly blossoming into a force to be reckoned with (perhaps because we now see her as the bad-ass from Kick Ass?) and some viewers may be unable to sympathise with Carrie because she doesn’t seem to need us to.

None of this will impinge on your enjoyment, however, particularly if the very thought of high school is enough to send shivers down your spine. This horror film has plenty of viscera and some deaths worthy of Final Destination. On top of that, while the telekinetic activity is anticipated rather than unexpected, at least we can’t see the strings.

What Maisie Knew

It can be a double-edged sword when there are lots of great actors headlining a movie. So often the starry cast belies a weak script or clichéd story (Woody Allen is particularly guilty of this, although he has been vindicated by his latest offering, Blue Jasmine). The Oceans Eleven franchise started really taking the mickey when the actors looked to be having a better time than the audience.

What Maisie Knew boasts Oscar-bait Julianne Moore, British comedian Steve Coogan and Swedish heartthrob of American television, Alexander Skarsgard: an eclectic if potentially heavenly cast. Excitingly, this excoriating tale of parents splitting up and doing everything you shouldn’t for the sake of the child stuck in the middle turns out to be even better than you could hope.

The film takes Maisie’s point of view, the camera gently following the eccentrically dressed young child from home to home, step-parent to step-parent, as she plays her powerless role in the negotiation of her parents’ separation. The viewer therefore only sees what Maisie sees, ingenuously bringing us directly into her experience.

But the power of this film really belongs to the adults, all of whose performances are brilliant – Coogan is better than he’s ever been, perfectly personifying a horribly recognisable bad father against Moore’s Oscar-deserving turn as the narcissistic but loving rock star mother. Support from the unfathomably gorgeous Skarsgard softens a few of the emotional blows that render this film incisive and insightful, devastating but delicious.

Back in 2001, the Tilda Swinton-starring The Deep End foreshadowed co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s talent for capturing the frailties of human nature and presenting characters who are enthralling despite dubious levels of moral fibre. They have scored again here – while Coogan and Moore behave badly, our judgement is not easily doled out, since both actors create real people with understandable motivations. Moore in particular earns plaudits for wordlessly allowing a flicker across her face to spell out several conflicting emotions and a resulting epiphany.

What Maisie Knew
is a delightful surprise for its depth, its warmly layered characters and its cinematic flair. If the narrative lapses somewhat predictably in places, this criticism is soothed by things working out exactly as you – and Maisie – might want them to.

Lives torn apart

This post was first published in Watt to Watch at http://www.stuff.co.nz on 2nd August 2013

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, as I have just two more viewing days of festival left. I’ve kept the last day completely unbooked, since I usually have an eleventh-hour bout of FOMO and rush to something, anything, before the crushing comedown of the post-festival blues.

No time to mope just yet, however, as I’ve been gorging on mind-expanding documentaries, pausing only for some eye candy of the handbag and shoes kind.

Screening this Sunday on the Auckland leg’s final day is the theatrical edit of documentary-maker Annie Goldson’s latest foray into telling it like it is. He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan makes for an excellent history lesson on why we joined the allied forces in a conflict not of our making, before enlightening viewers on what we’ve really been doing there.

He Toki Huna

Initially it’s rather embarrassing – I couldn’t help feeling we are the kid who is only invited to play in the Big Boys’ game to make up numbers. However, it soon transpires that New Zealand’s involvement in “reconstructing” the war-torn country is distinctly murky behind the positively-spun newsreel.

Taking up the cause for Kiwi journalist Jon Stephenson, discredited by John Key for earlier reported assertions, He Toki Huna travels to Kabul and into Bamiyan province, where locals are interviewed about New Zealand’s presence over the past decade. The Kiwis are regarded well enough, though recipients of our reconstruction efforts are scathing about the quality of work.

But the real revelations fly when Stephenson talks to those affected by a night raid that left two Afghans dead. Whether you’ll be shocked that New Zealand isn’t as 100 per cent pure as we’re led to believe, or whether you’re inured to tales of alleged military misconduct, this is an engaging, enlightening view of a story in which, for once, the Americans aren’t the leads.

While we’re talking documentaries, a special shout-out to the innovative rendering of Cambodia’s tragic past in The Missing Picture. Most people know that two million Cambodians were killed under Pol Pot’s 1970s regime, and while there have been several documentaries taking various angles (last year’s superb Brother Number One is notable for its New Zealand connection), here the filmmaker has painstakingly sculpted clay figurines to play out the story of his losing his entire family to starvation and murder. Interspersed with contemporary footage, much of it from Khmer Rouge propaganda videos, the gentle French voiceover describes horrors that are represented on screen in a surprisingly affecting manner.

Not wanting to break the sombre mood, I then watched The Captain and his Pirate, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a real-life ship hijacking that left the captain undergoing trauma therapy in a clinic in Germany, while the Somali pirate describes his affection and respect for the captain from the safety of his desert village. There is an astonishing moment when the interview is played back for the captain to hear hurtfully candid remarks. But given this is a view into the real world of ordinary people whose lives are brought painfully together, it’s the whole tale that’s remarkable.

A Hijacking

And what a perfect introduction to piratical life before I embarked on the superb Danish thriller, A Hijacking. Dramatising the same situation, writer/director Tobias Lindholm (who wrote The Hunt, and shows even greater skill here) tells the desperate story from both sides. In the corporate offices of the shipping company, CEO Peter (The Killing‘s Soren Malling) is trained by a real-life hostage negotiator in how to deal with the pirates who have taken his ship in the Indian Ocean. On board, the beleaguered cook Mikkel tries to survive mentally and physically as the crew languishes for [I won’t tell you how long!] as negotiations are drawn out. The acting is superb, and every line of dialogue seemingly spot-on for such an unimaginable situation. Full marks go to Lindholm and his own crew for producing one of the highlights of my festival.

By comparison, Sofia Coppola’s heralded The Bling Ring is made of fluffier, ickier stuff. Starring Emma “Hermione Potter” Watson in a breaking-the-mould role, she’s actually terrific as one of a bunch of real-life spoilt Hollywood kids who broke into celebrities’ homes and stole beautiful things. As we see inside the boudoir and Nightclub Room of Paris Hilton (better than any episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and almost worth the ticket price on its own), you soon feel as though you’ve eaten too much candy. The overall experience left me a bit soiled, like when I’ve read a WHO Weekly magazine. Definitely enjoyable but hardly “improving”.

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However, capping off an excellent two days was another stunner, What Maisie Knew – an excoriating tale of parents splitting up and doing everything you shouldn’t for the sake of the child stuck in the middle. The film takes Maisie’s point of view, gently following the eccentrically dressed wee child from home to home, step-parent to step-parent. Remarkably, every performance is brilliant here, too – Steve Coogan is the best I’ve ever seen him, perfectly personifying a bad father against Julianne Moore’s Oscar-deserving turn as the narcissistic rock star mother. Support from an unfathomably gorgeous Alexander Skarsgard softens a few of the emotional blows that render this film incisive and insightful, devastating but delicious.

Crazy Stupid Love

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 21st August 2011

Having married his soulmate at age 17 and raised three children, Cal (Steve Carell) is an uncommunicative, New Balance-wearing shadow of the man he once thought he was.

When wife Emily (Julianne Moore) requests a divorce, “Cal the Cuckold” finds himself propping up a local bar until ladies’ man Jacob offers him some tips, bemoaning: “I don’t know if I should help you or euthanase you.” Ryan Gosling is something of a poster boy for love stories, from The Notebook to the recent, and far superior, Blue Valentine.

Despite his shallow womanising as Jacob, he really should run a course in Break-Up 101 for every sartorially-challenged male, with his impressive portfolio of chat-up lines and photo-shopped physique. But, of course, he too has an itch that can only be scratched by the elusive Hannah (Emma Stone).

The film unfolds into a love hexagram, with everyone who’s fancied, in turn fancying someone else. As a plot this could be tiresome, but thanks to engaging performances from the whole cast, it’s a happyish ride, with a few tender moments. Cameos from Kevin Bacon, Marisa Tomei and singer Josh Groban go for laughs, but the core relationships manage to be sexy, as well as cute.

Due Date, The Kids are All Right, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

The Final Countdown

As 2010 drew to a close, I managed to sneak in three more films.  Herewith, for the sake of completeness, my musings:

Due Date

I wasn’t going to bother. I mean, I enjoyed The Hangover, and will see pretty much anything Robert Downey Jr. turns his hand to, but the trailer did look rather full of slapstick and base humour, the type (dare I say it – yes I do) that boys like. And when you’re hanging out for 2011’s release of The King’s Speech, Due Date is like the Turkish Delight chocolate in the bottom of the box.

I do wonder when Hollywood scriptwriters and their audiences are going to tire of the “I’ve never taken drugs in my life” Downey in-jokes. And when Zach Galifianakis is going to finally get sick of the typecasting and demand a dramatic/romantic lead. But until that day comes, we are destined to see many more buddy-comedies with mismatched leading men getting themselves into predicaments and then bonding (think Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in I Love You, Man, Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell in Dinner for Schmucks, Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen in Knocked Up… hang on a minute).

To be fair, Downey plays a good straight man, his character sufficiently fleshed out to justify the oscillation between bursts of anger and chastened warmth for the idiot who got him kicked off his flight home, and with whom he must drive across America.  Although Galifianakis feels somewhat exploited for his ability to abandon his dignity for the sake of a laugh, I can’t help but side with the playground bully who first forced him to perform.  From his mincing walk and flamboyant scarves to his naively ridiculous responses to some genuinely emotional situations revolving around paternal loss, Ethan Tremblay steals every scene, and Downey’s Peter graciously abets him.

There is plenty of silly physical humour, peppered with some laugh-out-loud lines that still render this a 3-star (out of 5) film. But it’s no Hangover, and it will soon be time for the filmmakers to observe their talents’ real talent and start using them for something better.

The Kids are All Right

A wonderfully original premise: the children of a lesbian couple seek out their biological father and the family starts a relationship with him – is played out surprisingly and beautifully by acting heavyweights Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo.

The women in particular bring terrific characterisation to the dinner table (and bedroom) as Nic and Jules, happily married for 20 or so years, with two well-adjusted teenagers who call them “Moms”.  When Paul (Ruffalo playing his oft-seen slacker, a role he seems designed for) enters their mix, the moms take to him in different ways – Nic perturbed by and Jules attracted to his laid-back, dope-smoking, attitude; daughter Joni excited and son Laser more skeptical. The family dynamics shift slightly, and lessons are learned along the way.

If anything, Paul’s response to having two ready-made children pop up in his commitment-phobe life is the only slightly untrue note in the film; however, Ruffalo plays this as if meaning every word.  Across town, Nic and Jules feel the impact on their own relationship as much as theirs with their children, and the effects on their expanding family are enlightening as well as painful.  The story doesn’t seek to propagate big ideas, but is nonetheless heartwarming and well-performed.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest

Yes, I saw the others.  So you’ll have gathered that, so unimpressed was I with the second film, I didn’t bother to review it in these pages.  Having now completed the trilogy, I think it’s worth a few words.

I didn’t read the books, but I understand the filmmakers left out some of the key thriller moments in their final film.  Why, given the 147- minute story which is overstuffed with padding, unnecessary dialogue and sub-plots that in no way advance the main narrative, I do not know.  What the filmmakers did not shy away from, however, is the extreme violence in each of the books.  I do get that our protaganist, Lisbeth Salander, needed to have been treated badly (which is putting it mildly) in order to justify the intense revenge story that followed.  I also appreciate that often people who are hellbent on such a course of action need to shut themselves off from emotion, and appear cold, unfeeling and impermeable.  They might even want to wear dark clothing and have tattoos.  Perhaps a piercing or two.  Often they will have sought solace in the restriction-free, impersonal world of the internet and may be IT whizzes.  I suppose it’s plausible, if a little gratuitous, that they might be lesbian (or at least bisexual).

But rather like in a serial killer movie where the screenwriter has done a spot of research online before writing a character ridden with cliches, to me Lisbeth Salander is a cobble-together of every supposedly antisocial (or “hardcore”) trait imaginable.  On top of this, she isn’t even very likeable.  We feel sorry for her, sure! (she is put through extraordinary ordeals in flashbacks and in the present, to ensure we forgive any resulting murderous deeds).  But overall the films are so grim, and the conclusion so muted and joyless, that even leaving the cinema after 2 1/2 exhausting hours of it, I found it hard to care.

Hornets Nest brings us to the end of Lisbeth’s story (the author, Stieg Larsson, having died before the success of his books, will not be bringing us any more).  I enjoy a good courtroom drama more than most people, and there was sufficient opportunity for there to have been shock and awe on the faces of the prosecution in the denouement.  But alas, as the Swedish film meandered along, the key evidence was leaked to the audience early on, and subsequently lost all impact by the time it was played in court.  Meanwhile, back at the offices of Millenium where journalist/knight-in-shining-armour Mikael Blomkvist is sending the whistleblowing issue to press, we sit through irrelevant backstories about the danger their editor is in, while Lisbeth languishes in jail, spiking her hair and applying eyeliner in preparation for another day refusing to answer questions.

David Fincher is making the inevitable Hollywood remakes as we speak. Normally I wouldn’t give you tuppence for an American version (I gather vampire movie Let Me In adds nothing to its Swedish precursor) but in this instance, I’m going to give Fincher’s a go, simply because he knows how to craft a good movie, and I want my story served rare, without garnish and chutney.

See you in 2011 to discuss whether he managed it.

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