REVIEW: The World’s End

23 06 2017

Edgar Wright might be known for his visual comedy and genre pastiche, but he’s also not afraid to throw in a little social commentary with his trademarks. Like many contemporary directors, he’s concerned with the effect of cell phones and technology on society. Part of the joke in Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” was how little separated the undead zombies from the barely living humans on a treadmill of electronic stimulation.

His 2013 feature “The World’s End” takes that comparison to newly absurd heights. In this reunion comedy-cum-apocalyptic action flick, cell phones are the tool that’s turning residents of a sleepy British town into robotic versions of themselves. (Hit them hard enough in the head, and they’ll spew blue liquid!)

Wright’s clever twist on the genre is to focus on replacement over annihilation. As an exposition-heavy section of dialogue tells us, “They want to make us more like them.” Social change happens not as an invasion or hostile takeover, although the horror films that speak to our anxieties about it usually portray it as such. Rather, the decline of civility takes place as a gradual erosion until our humanity is barely recognizable.

Wright (and co-writer Simon Pegg) are smart to set this observation against the backdrop of the pub tour of five estranged friends brought back together by Pegg’s lonely alcoholic. As he yearns for the mythical past of his glory days, he finds the present-day changes to the people of the town make his nostalgia impossible. Yet the social commentary, which is not anything particularly monumental, comes at the expense of Wright’s usual cheeky fun. It’s nice to get a reminder that friends and happiness are two things worth fighting for – these characters just aren’t always the best merchants for that moral. B





REVIEW: A United Kingdom

22 02 2017

History is rarely tidy enough to have personifications of complicated systems of belief like racism and colonialism, but movies nevertheless tend to present the past in such a way to simplify what seems unfathomable to modern audiences. Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom” lies among these crisp-edged period pieces and stands out as one of the better of the bunch.

The film succeeds at depicting high-level concepts of segregation and prejudice that are still relevant today. Yet it also works when pinpointing the ethos of a specific moment in the late 1940s where the sun was setting on the empire in which the sun never sets. British-born Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) falls head over heels for African tribal king Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), who studied in London to prepare himself to assume the throne in Botswana.

The grumblings from her ardently colonialist father could sufficiently set in motion the drama of an entire film altogether. But don’t worry, “A United Kingdom” charts the vast geopolitical complications arising from their marriage. What begins as mere disruption in a community presents an opportunity for the waning British powers to destabilize an entire region.

Guy Hibbert’s script front-loads the film’s most explosive moments – a refreshing change of pace. A fiery speech from Seretse in defense of his wife feels like the climactic moment of a more conventional story, but Hibbert situates it towards the beginning. The shocking segregation of blacks in their own country also appears primarily at the outset. These micro-level moments are just drops in the bucket of a larger narrative, one whose ever-expanding scope consumes “A United Kingdom.” Seeing how far those ripples extend proves the most fascinating component of Ruth and Seretse’s history, although little moments such as Ruth’s limp imitation of Queen Elizabeth’s wave to appear more regal to Botswanans delight along the way. B2halfstars





LISTFUL THINKING: 10 British Actors Who Would Have CRUSHED Harry Potter

12 05 2015

With Eddie Redmayne now in official talks for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a spinoff of the “Harry Potter” series, I figured now was as good a time as ever to turn a long-gestating list into a published post.  (This has been a note in my iPhone for almost four years now!)

It is easy to forget that the “Harry Potter” series, among its many accomplishments, offered fine roles to a number of talented British thespians.  Pooled together, the cast has amassed 31 Oscar nominations – a number that seems mightly low when you consider the names who graced the eight films.  Kenneth Branagh.  Julie Christie.  Gary Oldman.  Ralph Fiennes.  Maggie Smith.  Emma Thompson.  (Alan Rickman is not included because he has somehow never been nominated for an Oscar.)

Recently, a number of stars have expressed remorse that they were not a part of the series.  Martin Freeman got sad about it with Jimmy Fallon…

…while Eddie Redmayne briefly lamented it before launching into a hilarious story about bombing his audition for “The Hobbit” films.

Redmayne on HP

But just because it did not happen for Redmayne does not mean I cannot imagine a few recastings that incorporates some more talented British actors.  Maybe some roles will have to make cameos in the new trilogy, after all!  And, heaven forbid, Warner Bros. might actually reboot the original books one day.

So, as the title of the list suggests, here are 10 British actors overlooked by the “Harry Potter” casting directors and the roles they could have played brilliantly.

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REVIEW: A Long Way Down

3 12 2014

A Long Way DownThe chief problem with the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel “A Long Way Down” is that the screenplay does not come from Hornby himself.  He is one of few writesrs capable of making telling a grounded, compassionate story out of a scenario involving an accidental New Year’s Eve convening of four suicidal individuals on a London rooftop.

The gathering is eclectic, to say the least.  Among the bunch is a disgraced news anchor Martin (Pierce Brosnan), down-and-out American ex-patriot rocker-cum-pizza boy JJ (Aaron Paul), rebellious wild child Jess (Imogen Poots), and Maureen (Toni Collette), a single mother whose life consist solely of caring for her disabled child.  Nothing would ever bring them together but death, and nothing could keep them together but life. Contradictions and reversals underlie almost all of their story, all of which Hornby navigates gracefully.

Moreover, each character got a chance to narrate their own take on events and plumb the depths of their deep despair on the page.  That wealth of information is lost in the changeover to cinema, and nothing really replaces its intimate gaze into their troubles.  Jack Thorne’s adaptation is not terrible, but it clearly lacks the spark and panache of the source material.  He just captures the general essence of each character, only skimming the surface in the roughly 90 minutes available in “A Long Way Down.”

Director Pascal Chaumeil delivers a film that is definitely fun and entertaining in parts, yet it pales in comparisons to the dizzying highs and devastating lows of reading the novel.  He knows not to attempt the tricky tonal high-wire act of Hornby’s prose, though Chaumeil might have been better off emphasizing either the drama or the comedy of the story rather than taking his nondescript, wishy-washy approach.  His “A Long Way Down” feels short on personality, a real shame given how much Hornby’s book had to spare.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Gone Girl

17 11 2014

The gender politic has never been so fun or fierce to observe as it manifests in “Gone Girl,” David Fincher’s wickedly delectable adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel.  His eye for detail and intuition for the dark impulses that drive human behavior is a fitting, if not immediately obvious, match for her understanding of the roles available for men and women to assume or subvert in society today.

Together, they perform quite an incisive autopsy of the modern marriage which is every bit as confrontational as it is challenging.  The devilish duo might only be topped ingenuity by Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), the crazy couple they breathe into cinematic existence.  In their own distinct ways, they will lie, manipulate, and forge as necessary to get what they want out of the other.

Games that couples play have traditionally been a rich territory to mine for drama, but perhaps only “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” has dared to look this deep into the dark heart of nuptial discontent.  With their marriage plainly turned acrid, Nick finds himself at the center of suspicion when his wife mysteriously and rather suspiciously disappears.  The fact that Amy’s parents turned her life into inspiration for a best-selling children’s book series brings in a mob of overeager television personalities – led by a not-so-thinly veiled Nancy Grace surrogate (Missy Pyle) – going for his jugular.  It’s a trial by media, held in a writer’s room rather than a jury’s deliberation room.

Fincher does slightly overplay his hand in the first act of the film, all too clearly elucidating the unspoken implications and bringing to the forefront Flynn’s undertones of regional differences between Nick’s midwest community and Amy’s elite northeast upbringing.  Through Patrick Fugit’s assisting police officer on the case, whose face Fincher often cuts to after a plot development, the intended feelings for the audience get telegraphed a little too obviously.

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REVIEW: An Education

25 11 2009

In the age of the booming blockbuster, independent cinema is in dire need of a movie that can appeal to a blooming generation of teenage moviegoers if sophisticated cinema is to survive.  I couldn’t be more pleased to report that “An Education” is that movie.  Although it is the type of movie that typically plays best with adults, it has the power to resonate among younger viewers unlike any movie of its kind.  Director Lone Scherfig’s clear understanding of the mind of teenagers radiates from as early as the opening credits, where sine graphs and frog diagrams devolve into hearts.  Thankfully, her vision is complemented by phenomenal performances and a sensational script that easily makes for one of the best moviegoing experiences of the year.

Jenny, the film’s heroine played with a stunning mastery by Carey Mulligan, is a character with struggles that people at crossroads in life can still appreciate many decades after the movie is set.  Sadly, she faces the same problem of creating a “college identity” separate from her regular identity that still plagues teenagers today.  Her parents (Alfred Molina and Carey Seymour) make sure that she has all the interests and hobbies necessary for her to fit the Oxford bill, obliging her to partake in activities that she loathes.  Through the process, Jenny begins to feel somewhat uneasy about going to spend four years doing something “hard and boring” with her nose in a book at a university only to end up in a “hard and boring” career for the rest of her life.  She reasons, however, to go against the grain would mean throwing away years of her life dedicated to looking impressive on an application, but still the desire remains for something beyond the education that a textbook can provide.

Almost as if an answer to an unspoken prayer, a chance encounter with the charming, older David (Peter Sarsgaard) gives Jenny a taste of a captivating world where the formalities of her schooling rank substantially below the proclivities for enjoyment.  Gradually, David’s outlook rubs off on Jenny, and she becomes willing to throw out what she has worked so many years for to enter the materialistic world that he inhabits.  For all those who think Jenny’s judgement is being impaired by an infatuation for love, what is she doing other than indulging a yearning that all students have had?  Her curious exploration into a very adult world ultimately leads her to a course she had never expected to be enrolled in – a crash course in adulthood.

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Oscar Moment: “An Education”

14 10 2009

This edition of “Oscar Moment” concerns “An Education,” a coming of age story in 1960s Britain.  The movie has been generating massive buzz since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, particularly around leading actress and breakout star Carey Mulligan.  She plays 16-year-old Jenny, dead set on going to study at Oxford.  However, things change when she meets the magnetic David (Peter Sarsgaard).  He is much older than she and offers her a glimpse of a world that she has never imagined.  After being introduced to a new lifestyle, her old ideals and values begin to fly out the window.  But their relationship is unable to transcend societal norms, and they come crashing down on unsuspecting Jenny.  Will she be completely broken?  Will the old Jenny return, or will a new and independent woman be born from the ashes.

I knew that the story involved coming-of-age since I first heard of it back in January, but I had no idea that it involved someone my age.  This is so thrilling to hear because no one makes good, independent, thought-provoking movies about people my age!

Some Oscar prognosticators I read have boiled the Best Actress race at the Oscars down to Carey Mulligan vs. Meryl Streep for “Julie & Julia.”  Others have gone as far as to say that she already has the statue in the bag.  Although I do like an exciting and unpredictable race, I love when a performance so magnificent comes along that allows people to call the race in January.  My humble prediction is that if other female performances fizzle and it does boil down to Carey and Meryl, the Oscars will choose the former just because Meryl already has two.  Not to mention recent trends show a tendency to honor up and coming actresses, such as in 2007 with the stunning victory of Marion Cotillard.

But the buzz isn’t around Mulligan solely.  Alfred Molina, who plays Jenny’s father, has been acknowledged as a strong candidate for Best Supporting Actor.  Some say that if the film hits big with the Academy, goodwill could result in nominations for some other cast members, like Rosamund Pike in Best Supporting Actress and Peter Sarsgaard in Best Actor.  The latter seems improbable just due to how stacked the Best Actor category appears this year.  The film’s director, Lone Scherfig, could find herself nominated due to the nature of the year and its spotlight on female directors.  Nick Hornby, author of the source material for “About a Boy” and “Fever Pitch,” penned the script based on Lynn Hornby’s memoirs; his chances seem somewhat more auspicious.  And the film itself, provided it registers as a blip on the public’s radar, seems likely to land itself in the Best Picture category.

It pains me to know that I have to wait until October 30th for “An Education” to hit a theater in Houston.  But until then, I will be enjoying selections from the soundtrack, which is stellar.  If you wonder what the catchy tune from the trailer is called, it is “You’ve Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” by Beth Rowley.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Actress (Carey Mulligan), Best Supporting Actor (Alfred Molina), Best Adapted Screenplay

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Director (Lone Scherfig), Best Actor (Peter Sarsgaard), Best Supporting Actress (Rosamund Pike/Emma Thompson/Cara Seymour)