Lina Lamont

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

Archive for the tag “Ralph Fiennes”

Kubo and the Two Strings

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

PG
92 mins
3.5 stars

This latest feature from the makers of Coraline and ParaNorman is notable less for its story and more for the stop-motion animation that delivers an aesthetic which at once feels fresh and exciting, while also comfortingly old-fashioned. (I say this as someone who marvels at the technical wizardry of modern animation, remembering vividly gasping at the rendering of individual hairs in Final Fantasy and loving the sheer vibrancy of Zootopia, with not a clue as to how it all happens.)

So when our young hero, Kubo, sets the scene for his impending quest by narrating adventure stories to his fellow villagers, it is the spectacle of fluttering origami paper that captivates us – “so real it looks like paper!” I whisper, only to be told that’s because it is paper – and the ensuing beauty of each scene that marks it out from the raft of CGI-created movies churned out every year.

Less compelling, however, is Kubo’s tale, although it touches on issues of familial bonds, orphanhood and ancestral worship (albeit through characters beholden to American accents, including the great Brit, Ralph Fiennes). But the messages get lost among fight scenes festooned with autumn leaves and the shiniest armour you’ve ever seen in a cartoon (that’s because it probably is armour – I don’t know!).

Note: the censor’s rating wisely mentions violence and scary scenes, so consider your little person’s capacity for dark stories before taking them to experience exquisite technical skill and a charming glimpse of Japanese culture.

Hail, Caesar!

This review first published in the Sunday Star-Times, 6th March 2016

This latest caper by those magnificent Coen Brothers takes us back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, when “aquatic pictures” were a popular artform, and the studio star system made household names out of the forebears of today’s George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum.

In a familiar Coen plot, Hail, Caesar! revolves around the kidnapping of Clooney’s leading man, Baird Whitlock. (The Coens, who also write their own films, clearly love their botched crimes almost as much as naming their characters.) Whitlock is snatched from his trailer by an unlikely sect, but in typically Coenesque fashion, his unexpected response to his captors is more Stockholm Syndrome than moral outrage.

As ever, the film is superbly cast from its protagonist, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio fixer who must keep scandals out of the headlines, to the gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton, playing twins) who roam the manicured lawns at Capitol Pictures, sniffing out an exclusive. Johansson swims; Tatum dances (if we ever needed a successor to Gene Kelly, he’s it).

Throw in small but hilarious roles for Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand, and you almost have a sure-fire hit on your hands. “Would that it were so simple,” Fiennes opines, but truth be told, the Coens haven’t quite replicated the sheer brilliance of Fargo or the consistently gripping tone of their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men.

What they do, however, is effortlessly evoke a bygone era from its set design down to its parlance, and entertain their modern-day audience in spades. Hail, Caesar! has bags of laughs and guileless charm. If you think it gets a bit verbose, you better blame the writers.

A Bigger Splash

This review first published in the Sunday Star-Times, 6th March 2016

A remake of the 1969 French film La Piscine, four storming performances lie at the heart of what makes A Bigger Splash a riot of a summer art-house movie.

Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive, Michael Clayton) is as effortless as ever in her portrayal of Marianne, a famed rockstar recovering from debilitating throat surgery whose Italian holiday is disrupted by the arrival of her erstwhile lover Harry (an utterly intoxicating Ralph Fiennes, loosened up like you’ve never seen him before) and his newly found daughter. As Marianne’s current young paramour, the hunky Matthias Schoenaerts, strives to retain his favoured position (Harry’s needling of the grown man he calls “the Kid” is sharply played), the tension is neatly ratcheted up as a battle for devotion and attention ensues. But as with many films boasting a French provenance, events rapidly turn even darker than anticipated.

As he did with I Am Love (also starring Swinton), Italian director Luca Guadagnino allows the audience to live vicariously in the world of the rich and famous, where lounging beside tiled swimming pools and dining al fresco is taken for granted by the four beautiful people whose emotional inner-wrangling delivers all of the narrative drama. He underscores their bourgeois malaise with a brilliant soundtrack (both orchestral and pop-cultural) and keeps the narrative mosing apace.

Expertly acted, the nuances in character development are superb – although Fiennes talks a mile a minute and prances around in the altogether (one central scene in which he takes centre stage is worth the ticket price alone), his drug-addled record producer also manages to provoke our sympathy. As the pouty daughter Harry has only just discovered, 50 Shades of Grey’s Dakota Johnson shows enormous promise, and Schoenaerts wears his character’s wounded past with admirable restraint.

Where I Am Love descended into melodrama at the end, A Bigger Splash just about manages to keep its head above water. It’s not remotely subtle but it certainly is a heap of debauched fun.

 

The Invisible Woman

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 20th April 2014

The great actor and now often-times director, Ralph Fiennes, nearly burst a blood vessel playing Coriolanus, his previous effort at taking the lead role as well as running the show. In The Invisible Woman Fiennes tackles another great literary hero, Charles Dickens, and once again delivers a compelling performance while exercising a restraint seldom seen by stars-who-direct.

Though everyone knows his name, few may know that Dickens’ private life battled a few best and worst times of its own. Ostensibly happily married and father to a herd, Dickens’ eye was apparently turned by a young actress he encountered during a local theatre production (the play written, incidentally, by his mate Wilkie Collins, played predictably but delightfully by the irrepressible Tom Hollander). Dickens takes young Nelly Ternan into his heart under the watchful eye of her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), but naturally the path to this sort of forbidden love cannot run smoothly.

It’s a love story template we know well, but thankfully Fiennes demands excellent work from his cast who deliver smooth dialogue and nuanced performances enhanced by the pretty costume design and some beautiful photography. As young Nelly, Felicity Jones (who worked with Fiennes in Cemetery Junction) shows she has blossomed into an accomplished actress, adept at playing the ingénue as well as the tortured older soul whose reminiscences form the basis of the story.

Above all, there is something fascinating about seeing a household name from the 1850s as he was in real-life – mobbed at the races like a modern-day celebrity; cooed over by readers who debate the detail of his greatest works; breaking social conventions by fraternising with unmarried couples. With universally strong performances propelled through a pacy narrative, The Invisible Woman should not be allowed to slip away unseen.

Coriolanus

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 27th May 2012

It’s not surprising that this is the first ever movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s great play. Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut and takes the starring role, which shows a degree of narcissism as well as considerable talent: his performance is a stand-out (and quite how one is supposed to watch the rushes then give oneself advice on how to “tone it down” is anyone’s guess. He clearly dispensed with such advice). But the outcome is heavy-going.

Fiennes plays the eponymous leader, a returned soldier and hero with angry, misanthropic views. His inflammatory political stance ignites insurgence and bloodshed, which leads to his exile. Hell hath no fury like a hero scorned, and his relationship with enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler, initially two-dimensional but more powerful in later scenes) takes an unexpected turn.

Retaining the original dialogue, Fiennes and his excellent foreign cast (among them, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox and up-and-comer Jessica Chastain) handle their lines as naturally as possible, removing the potential jarring of listening to bygone speech while looking at a modern picture. This tack shows how it can be done without reverting to 21st century paraphrasing a la Ten Things I Hate About You or Baz Luhrmann’s (albeit exciting) retelling of the star-crossed lovers with pop music.

What makes this version most interesting, however, is its contemporary updating to a war-torn Bosnia-like Rome, with opening combat scenes shown via newsreel and gritty, handheld photography. Helpfully (particularly for those not familiar with the play), the clever use of TV footage and live news stories conveys the history and context within which the drama commences. Fiennes nearly bursts a blood vessel in his passion, but brings an energy to the telling which makes it an enthralling, and tiring, watch.

Are we there yet?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1

It’s hard to believe it will have been 10 years by the time we see the end of him.  Back in 2001, a cute little English lad called Daniel Radcliffe bounced onto our screens as the eponymous wizard with his trademark round spectacles and lightning bolt scar, and started out on what has proved to be a very long journey in saving the world from evil.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone won the hearts of those who’d read the book (and would go on to read the other 6 in the series), and even managed to engage those of us whose catch-cry for such ‘classics’ is usually “I’ll see the movie”.

Deathly Hallows is the 7th film, but this final book has sensibly been split into two movies (presumably so that nothing need be left out of what is a very involved story) – so audiences will have to wait until July 2011 for the grand finale.  With that in mind – and considering a decade is a long time in this cinema-goer’s memory so I couldn’t always remember what had happened to so-and-so, or where we were supposed to be now – Deathly Hallows still manages to be a good film.  In fact, at over 2 1/2 hours, it may be fair to say a very good film.  I was engaged throughout, and there are umpteen fantastic scenes and set-pieces that keep the otherwise fairly banal narrative rolling along (the animated recount of the origin of the deathly hallows was the film’s highlight for me).  Our hero, with his ever-present sidekicks Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson significantly grown-up but still plausible as teenagers, and the latter having finally found her acting feet to deliver a superior performance than previously) encounters the usual onslaught of baddies and carries the omnipresent weight of his duty to kill Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, terrifying mostly because he has no nose).

As legend knows by now, J. K. Rowling was a struggling author who created the world’s most popular children’s books in her local cafe before hitting the big time.  Apparently she stipulated that the cast of the movies must be only British (allowing for a few Irish, particularly in this latest film, and some Eastern Europeans in earlier films where they were characterised thus) and it’s true that the Great and Good of the British acting fraternity have all appeared at some stage over the decade.  Notable are Alan Rickman as the fickle Snape, the aforementioned Fiennes as the ultimate anti-hero who is responsible for the death of Harry’s parents, and the likes of Imelda Staunton, Helena Bonham-Carter and Jason Isaacs.  Arriving at the eleventh hour is the delightfully foppish Rhys Ifans.

The film is definitely not a standalone affair.  If you haven’t read the books or seen all the previous movies, you are unlikely to know what’s going on or give a hoot.  To be fair to the producers, Part 7 of an 8-Part series can get away with this.  The Harry Potter stories do revolve around the standard Good vs Evil that motivates the majority of storytelling, but not with quite the import or moral depth of, say, the Tolkien stories.  Nonetheless, there are some genuinely frightening moments among the dazzling spells and witty one-liners, and it left me caring enough about whether/how Harry will save the day in the final installment, to have me waiting eagerly for next July.

It didn’t hurt a bit, but is it really a Best Picture?

Well done, Kathryn Bigelow.

I loved Point Break back in the day (and even on DVD last week, nearly 20 years since I first saw it in the cinema and felt completely exhilarated). And I thought she did a superb job with the under-appreciated Strange Days (what a brilliant and ghastly concept! Angela Bassett an inspiration! and has Tom Sizemore ever been more sinister?? – this was pre-Heat, of course…). As much as I hate to play the “Go women directors!” angle, she sure can produce a good action flick – no question about it.

So then she was suddenly nominated for an Iraq war film, best director and best picture Oscars among others, up against her ex-husband, the polarising James Cameron. He was up for Avatar, as we know all too well, and the inevitable taking of sides began. I hadn’t seen The Hurt Locker (we only just got it here in the last couple of weeks) but I knew Avatar sure as heck wasn’t deserving of Best Picture, and so (playing the “Go women directors!” angle) I was happy to support Bigelow, sight unseen. After all, since when does the Academy reward truly excellent films or superlative film-making anyway? not often of late…

Well, I’ve seen it now. And let’s put aside the Best Picture and Director wins for the time being. The Hurt Locker is a good, well-made film – it’s gripping, gritty, well-acted, the script is largely simple and non-sentimental, the characterisation is sufficiently engaging that you do care about whether the bomb disposal team live or die, and there are some pretty exciting cameos from Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes (the latter eliciting a *gasp* of recognition and a frisson of excitement from this viewer – mopey Ralph, all tanned, tough and Alpha-Maled up!!).

Jeremy Renner is our main guy throughout, a slightly caricatured devil-may-care kinda soldier Staff Sergeant William James (well, that’s my 2 favourite boys’ names right there).  Will clearly relishes his role as the most successful member of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) squad – he’s defused 873 bombs in his short career – and his attitude to the task at hand makes for incredibly exciting viewing.  Leave the fear and apprehension to the others in the team (a particularly nice performance from the little-known Brian Geraghty) – Will is seemingly fearless, preferring to discard the special armoured suit in favour of working in shirt sleeves once he establishes there is a high likelihood of failure anyway, so he’d rather die comfortable.

The set-pieces are all superbly crafted. The photography juxtaposes close-ups of the actual bombs, so that we understand the intricacies of removing wires and detonators, with wide shots that bring home the context of each suspenseful situation – local Iraqis watch from their balconies with curiosity rather than fear, people go about their commerce in the streets, while the EOD team stands tense, alert, mindful of the potentially devastating outcome.  To its credit, the film doesn’t overdo the jerky, handheld camerawork now emblematic of the Bourne school, yet the movement still brings you right into the action. Needless to say, the trick is in the editing – and to that end, every deployment keeps you gripped until Will James sits back in the truck and lights a cigarette, signalling all is well.

The film’s one difficulty is its ending. I sympathise somewhat with the writer – short of blowing up your protagonist and leaving us at a military funeral, how to round off over 2 hours of such drama? The answer is: drag us from the dusty heat of Iraq and throw us into Will’s claustrophobic rainy world “back home” with his wife and new baby. He struggles to reconcile the endless aisles of breakfast cereal with what he’s experienced at war, and following a slightly cringy and disappointingly banal monologue to his infant son, we see Will re-deployed to the Middle East, patently happy to be back doing what gives him purpose.

But Best Picture? Annoyingly, the Academy upped the shortlist to 10 films this year, not really leading the charge for separating wheat from chaff, but there you go. I was just so glad Avatar (in all its technical splendour, but laden with a rubbish script, story, characterisation, and all the other things that should really a Best Picture maketh) didn’t win. And given The Blind Side was also a nominee, clearly we weren’t shooting for the stars in 2009. The Hurt Locker is not quite Best Picture material in the way that No Country for Old Men, The English Patient and (my favourite) Silence of the Lambs were over the last 2 decades. But in the context of previous winning films, it’s actually pretty in keeping with the Academy’s taste. And I can’t honestly put one of the other 9 nominees as my preferred choice, so I guess I’ll just have to enjoy the film for its own merits, and hope for a more exciting, worthy Oscar race next March.

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