Lina Lamont

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

Archive for the tag “Peter Sarsgaard”

Jackie

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th January 2017

4.5 stars, Rated M, 99 mins

The first thing that strikes you when watching Natalie Portman on screen as Jackie Kennedy is that the actress must have done her homework. Portman, an Oscar winner for Black Swan who has forged a reputable career since she debuted at age 12 in Leon: The Professional, took a break from Hollywood to complete a psychology degree at Harvard because she considers being smart more important than being famous. And so, if the strangely accented, halting drawl comes across as a bit mannered in her evocation of JFK’s First Lady, rest assured that Portman will have worked tirelessly for this role, and what we’re seeing is the real deal.

jackie

Jackie is a strange sort of biopic in many ways. Principally, it doesn’t seek to tell the tale from the beginning – we learn nothing of how the socialite met her prince and established the house of Camelot. Instead, the film focuses on the days surrounding JFK’s assassination in Dallas, skipping between Jackie’s interview with a dispassionate reporter (a steely and terrific Billy Crudup) as she conjures up recollections of that dreadful day, and a depiction of the actual event and its immediate aftermath.

With a great cast and evident dedication to accurately relaying history, it’s an often devastating watch. Portman’s superb performance as distraught widow is underscored by the tension between her right to privately grieve and a lack of time in which to do it. The brutal haste with which JFK is succeeded is galling: Vice President and Lady Johnson (a perfect John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) make excellent villains as Jackie witnesses his swearing in as President on Air Force One mere hours after the shooting, while she stands dazed in the background.

The other thing that marks Jackie out is director Pablo Larrain’s very particular style of filmmaking. Shot on 16mm film, every frame looks like archive footage from the period (excepting the small quibble that Portman is too beautiful to truly convince as the albeit stylish Jackie O), and several scenes are recreated shot for shot from clips you can view for yourself on YouTube. The production design of the White House and, of course, Jackie’s signature suits are spot-on, while her staffers (Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant, both terrific) and brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) perfectly embody the 1960s in their speech and attitudes.

But above all, this is Portman’s film. With tangible pain, she portrays a woman preoccupied by her husband’s legacy and reputation, while clearly drowning in grief. There is nothing as lonely as the sight of the former First Lady wandering vacantly around the White House in a pink suit stained with her husband’s blood. Harrowing and fascinating, Jackie is a beautiful, painful throwback to a terrible moment in history.

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The Magnificent Seven

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, September 2016

M
133 mins
3 stars

Another day in Hollywood, another pitch for a remake of some classic that probably needn’t have been messed with. (Perhaps they said this in 1960 with regard to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but at least that was translating a Japanese classic into American.) In contrast, this updated Magnificent Seven opts to stick to its original time and place and merely update its casting with some brave/unusual/ uninspiring choices. Magnificent? More like Middling.

The straightforward story, always one of the successful hallmarks of a Western, involves the victimisation of a small American frontier town in the 1870s by an evil industrialist (a terrific Peter Sarsgaard, who has the invidious talent of appearing really sinister even when he’s not). Pillaged and left with the threat of his return, who are the townspeople gonna call? Luckily, wandering bounty hunter Sam Chisholm tips up at the right time, and in turns conscripts a band of mostly merry men to protect and serve.

This time, Yul Brynner’s bald-pated leader is played by Denzel Washington, heralding the first of the curious casting choices – while certainly progressive it’s historically unlikely that uncivilised white folk would have followed a black man – but in any event, Washington’s colour is not mentioned. Similarly, the taciturn “Oriental” counterpart (actually a Korean actor though spoken of as “found in China”) is a specialist in knives and an accepted member of the team, and although the Mexican has a teasing relationship with Chris Pratt’s cheerful buffoon, one can hardly cry “racist!”.

From the superb Training Day which got him attention, to the average The Equalizer and flawed Southpaw, director Antoine Fuqua’s ability to meet my excited expectations is certainly waning. As far as Westerns go, this one is unremarkable – boasting neither Tarantinian dialogue nor the exquisite photography of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But it’s largely well-executed, maintaining a smart pace and delivering a nicely choreographed battle scene which is less tiresome than most Marvel fights. Perhaps if one manages one’s expectations of magnificence, these seven will still entertain.

Experimenter

What a tricky little delight of a film this is.

Experimenter is the dramatization of real-life experiments performed by social psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s (the essence of which, the less known beforehand the more you will enjoy the story). Milgram’s research famously illuminated certain areas of human nature we would prefer not to confront, and one of the film’s strengths is its capacity to implicate and consequently unnerve its audience.

Writer-director Michael Almereyda has employed a curious technique in bringing this story to the cinema screen. If initially the acting and dialogue seem slightly theatrical, his presumed intent to stage it like a play becomes clear when our protagonists (a terrific Peter Saarsgard as Milgram and the slightly odd return of Winona Ryder as his wife) drive to a party, the scenery behind them back-projected like an old Hitchcock movie. Later they visit colleagues where an unpainted 2-dimensional backdrop serves as the set. Meanwhile, the wardrobe and design departments work tirelessly to deliver us to an authentic-looking era of scientific stimulation.

However, the stagey aesthetic doesn’t detract from how fascinating Milgram’s tale is or how troubling its implications are for humankind. Experimenter is at once uncomfortable and compulsory viewing.

 

 

Night Moves

A trio of environmental activists go the extra protesting mile by planning to blow up a hydroelectric dam. It’s all for a good cause, right? But tragedy can strike even the well-intentioned.

This seemingly straightforward plot (in both senses of the word) is expertly executed and rendered entirely gripping, thanks to intense performances and the director’s trademark languid style. Starring Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), the eternally unnerving Peter Sarsgaard and former child star Dakota Fanning (impressively grown-up since War of the Worlds), the story focuses on their sullen interactions, with all the unspoken tension and paranoid glances such a scenario presents.

The pacing is notable, as in all Kelly Reichardt’s films, for taking its damned time. The director is unrepentantly interested in the “small moments”, and while the planning for the bomb is intricately detailed and necessarily builds suspense, the potential for interpersonal conflict smolders quietly. With the contribution of a terrific soundtrack and subtle camerawork, the result is nothing short of enthralling.

Green Lantern

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 19th June 2011

Another super-hero movie! Based on a comic book! I know what you’re thinking – we’ve seen it all before.

And you’d be right.  While Green Lantern impresses in the CGI stakes, creating a spectacular and sometimes ooh-aah galaxy in which to set the story, it doesn’t give us anything new or interesting.  With opening music reminiscent of (but not as good as) Tron, it initially treads a similar narrative as orphaned dare-devil pilot, Hal Jordan, is forced to shed a life of irresponsibility to take up the mantle of saving the world.

Temuera Morrison’s purple prose in Kiwi accent is cut mercifully short, and the ring chooses a bewildered Hal as the first ever human in the Green Lantern Corps (that’s Guardians of the Universe to you and me).  Ryan Reynolds is a handsome, approachable chap, but he can’t carry a film of quite this weight, commercial or thematic (there is a lot of actually very pertinent talk about the power of “will versus fear”, but these concepts are drowned out by the clichéd script), and the story has nowhere to go that hasn’t been traversed by a million comics before it.

The highlight is the brilliant Peter Sarsgaard as embittered Hector Hammond, a shy scientist who becomes a puppet for the main baddie, Parallax, (effectively an evil head with mouldy dreadlocks.  Frightening, though, when let loose in the streets of New York).  All in all it’s a bit silly, but nice to look at.

 

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