It's alive... ish.
This review is dedicated to Marianne L.,
who I hope will one day see a film adaptation worthy of her favourite literary classic.
Many films over the years have attempted to do justice to (or riff on) Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece 'Frankenstein'. No small task and not many have succeeded. All you need to do is look at last year’s braindead I, Frankenstein, which saw Aaron Eckhart, his chin and the dire Jai Courtney utterly foul it up in a film which made the Underworld films feel essential.
Now comes director Paul McGuigan, who after directing a few episodes of the BBC show Sherlock, helms this Victorian-set reimagining...
The film opens with the nameless circus hunchback / Igor-in-waiting (Daniel Radcliffe) narrating his sad life story. That is until the titular hero (James McAvoy) meets him, recognises his potential as a physician (don’t ask) and breaks his future assistant out of his cage so that he may assist him with his death-defying experiments. This won’t please the God-fearing Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), who suspects monkey business (literally in this case) and sees the young medical student’s activities as blasphemy.
Let’s cut to the chase: there’s plenty wrong with Victor Frankenstein. Max Landis’ screenplay is weak, the romance subplot with the token love interest (Jessica Brown Findlay) is comically underwritten and the final act culminating in the cowboy-in-exile beat is as stupid as it gets.
However, for all its many faults, McGuigan does his best with the material and Victor Frankenstein never fails to entertain. Chiefly thanks to the overacting McAvoy and the steampunk set pieces, at no point does your attention waver. It plays out like a B-movie panto that shamelessly aches to do what Guy Ritchie did for his Sherlock Holmes films, right down to the fast paced dialogue and the anatomical diagrams superimposed onto bodies. As for Landis’ aforementioned script, it lacks panache but does redeem itself with some thematic winks to the source material regarding science vs faith, man playing God and how the history books will remember the Frankenstein name...
Then there’s Radcliffe. You can’t fault his performance too much, especially considering the first half of the film sees him trying hard. However, there lies the rub: you can see him trying and his all-too-familiar delivery of every line makes you legitimately wonder if the only reason he was cast was for the producers to capitalise on his pubic wizard cred. The excellent McAvoy should really be involved in stronger projects and his screen-hogging turn elevates the proceedings; Radcliffe is sadly right at home here and leaves little-to-no mark.
Victor Frankenstein starts off promisingly but lacks the conviction of its ideas, reverting instead to formulaic yet flamboyant tropes. Critics and audience members may harshly blast it, but in a year that brought us Pixels, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 and the bafflingly spelt (and even more bafflingly executed) Terminator: Genisys, this is not a disaster. It's 110 minutes of flawed but competent entertainment and sometimes that's just fine.
- D - 09/12/15
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel ‘The Price of Salt’, Carol is nothing short of Todd Haynes’ most exquisite film and one of this year’s very best.
Set in post-war 1950s America, a mousy shop assistant Therese (Rooney Mara) meets the film’s namesake (Cate Blanchett) during a pre-Christmas shopping rush in the Manhattan department store she works in. Therese yearns to be a photographer and has a boyfriend (Jake Lacy) who desperately tries to get her to commit to a relationship she can’t truly invest in. Carol is dealing with her estranged and possessive husband Harge (Kyle Chandler): their marriage is over and he is preparing for a custody battle for their child, having repeatedly tried to salvage the union despite knowing his wife’s true desires.
The wide-eyed youth and the confident socialite start a relationship. Each one battles their baggage and attempts to live their romance in a stifling era of conformity, one in which their illicit feelings could not only make them social pariahs but could also cause Carol to lose custody of her daughter...
From the first meeting of the two characters in the toy section of the department store to the closing restaurant scene, it’s hard to find a single fault with Haynes’ elegant and intoxicating film. Everything from the period details, the director’s evocative use of reflective or transparent surfaces to the subtle way the Eisenhower-era oppression is brought to screen is transfixing. Rarely are films this immersive and expertly helmed. Credit is in large part due to Phyllis Nagy’s streamlined screenplay and Haynes’ regular director of photography Ed Lanchman, whose muted palette is beautifully oppressive and a wonder to behold.
Regarding the performances, Carol is one of those cases where superlatives lack. Blanchett and Mara are terrific and completely inhabit their roles. The former veers into femme fatale territory at times, especially in the first half of the film, making Therese’s innocence palpable and both performers excel in impregnating Brief Encounter-reminiscent gestures and furtive glances with layers of emotions. The actresses also manage to create a beautiful dichotomy which sees the older protagonist driven to revealing the vulnerable core behind her often haughty demeanour while the timid Therese progressively transforms with gradual understanding of who she is as a person.
However, while everyone - including most probably the Academy - will fawn over Cate Blanchett’s performance, the film truly belongs to Rooney Mara. Her mesmerizing turn is nuanced and underplayed; she allows her character's inexperience to shine through without at any point appearing feeble. She was already nominated in 2011 for her role in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (and rightfully so) and this performance in Carol should earn her a second nod, if not a win.
The supporting cast are also excellent and not to be forgotten: the immensely watchable Sarah Paulson plays Carol’s best friend and former lover to perfection and the terrific Kyle Chandler lives up to the deterministic assonance of Harge’s lumpish name.
If there is one minor qualm with Carol, it is the ending. The film chooses to remain faithful to Highsmith’s denouement, one which chooses not to punish the lovers (like so many endings do) and instead shows that forbidden desires should not remain so. It is beautifully handled but almost comes off as too neat and lacking in an involving crescendo. Still, maybe it’s because modern audiences are so used to a certain schematic with regards to films about doomed romances that the ending might underwhelm.
This point aside, the director and his creative team have managed to sidestep needless melodrama, clichés linked to lesbian romance and avoided sensationalist elements by opting for meaningful and mature subtleties. Haynes has captured on screen a confining conservative era, the often suffocating feeling of melancholia and some of the enigmatic mechanisms of love. No small feat for a truly masterful achievement.
- D - 30/11/15
Steve Jobs opens with archive footage of Arthur C. Clarke accurately predicting the future. He describes how there will be a technological revolution in the near future which sees machines capable of the most complex tasks in every home.
Skip ahead a few years and the focus is on our eponymous protagonist. We see him over the course of two decades, each time backstage with minutes to go before three product launches: the first in 1984 for the original Macintosh, the second in 1988 for the NeXT Computer and the third ten years later for the 1998 iMac. Jobs (Michael Fassbender) deals with a series of last minute crisis which have the same players: the long-suffering “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his long-time disgruntled friend Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), designer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), Apple CEO and father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) as well as the mother of his child Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and the daughter he (initially) refuses to acknowledge as his own (played respectively by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine).
It’s hard not to draw parallels between Danny Boyle’s latest and David Fincher’s The Social Network. In fact, both could be screened back-to-back as cinematic companions considering these unconventional biopics uniquely focus on obsessed, egomaniacal figures who are lacking social niceties and who many have called pioneers. Both Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg want to connect the world but can’t seem to stop disconnecting themselves from those around them. The films have a great supporting cast and crucially, both are scripted by Aaron Sorkin, who bagged an Oscar for The Social Network. You can place your bets now that he’ll bring home another for Steve Jobs: each scene features his trademark whip-smart verbal exchanges and impossibly witty walk-and-talk zingers that have made Sorkin such a household name.
If Fincher and Sorkin made a Greek tragedy, Boyle and Sorkin literally take you backstage and allow the audience to witness Jobs slowly and reluctantly dealing with his issues, ranging from technical glitches to fatherhood. The screenwriter creates a theatrical three act structure that is cleverly helmed by Boyle, allowing the film to bypass spoon-fed lengthy backstories. While there is the occasional (and mercifully brief) flashback, at no point do we see typical biopic fodder: no time is wasted emphasizing humble beginnings, adding a melodramatic fall from grace and crowbarring in a rousing comeback glorifying the protagonist. The audience don’t even get to see any of the presentations Jobs and his team are prepping for.
This audacious approach works wonders, especially for Michael Fassbender. He nuancedly makes Jobs a controlling bully but also a man that you ache to understand, a flawed human being who just can’t bring himself to see the world with another set of eyes but his own. It is a measured performance and yet another brilliant turn from an actor who has not put a foot wrong this year: whether it’s Slow West, Macbeth or Steve Jobs, he’s at the top of his game and thankfully shows no signs slowing down.
Steve Jobs is not the promotional, Apple-worshipping love-fest it could have been; it features a terrific central performance and an exhilarating script which make it a compelling character study. Talk of Sorkin’s achievement will overshadow the uniformly excellent acting and Danny Boyle’s confident direction; the director makes less of a directorial impact compared to Fincher and while the design is still his, the software is all Sorkin’s. Not that that’s a bad thing: it makes Steve Jobs the lighter yang to The Social Network’s darker - and arguably more enthralling - yin.
- D - 16/11/15
“Cause sooner or later in life, the things you love you lose...”
Set almost entirely in an uber-swanky Swiss spa, Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film follows guests who contemplate their lives, specifically two friends who are dealing with the passing of time and their legacies.
Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a retired composer who is asked by a Buckingham Palace emissary (The Thick Of It’s Alex MacQueen) to step out of retirement to conduct his famous ‘Simple Songs’ for the Queen during a special gala. His best friend and famous director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is also in the spa with his team of young screenwriters: he aims to finish the script for his latest outing, which will star his frequent muse Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), a film he already considers to be his “testament”.
Other guests include young actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), the recently-crowned Miss Universe (the stunning Madalina Ghenea), an overweight footballer (played by a Maradona lookalike) and Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who joins her father at the resort when Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard) suddenly leaves her for Paloma Faith (who plays a parody of herself).
For his follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty, Sorrentino has decided to continue musing about the past, artistic inspiration and memory. Youth is a meditation on ageing and the outpouring of long-simmering crisis that can occur when life deals you one too many blows. It deals with a surprising amount of grand themes but crucially never forgets to inject some humour and never reduces the theme of aging to a poor punchline.
The Italian director teams up with his frequent DP Luca Bigazzi to make the visuals stunning and each vignette as gorgeous as the next: the alpine setting is made both lush and linear by Bigazzi’s lensing and the lighting makes the body and facial close-ups richly mesmerizing. Special mention must go to a nocturnal dream sequence in which Caine’s character meets Miss Universe in a flooded St Mark’s Square and a Fellini-esque composition featuring all of Mick’s female characters scattered around a picturesque Swiss field.
Coupled with the exquisite visuals and camera flourishes is David Lang’s slightly avant-garde and terrific soundtrack, which features Mark Kozelek who punctuates the drama with some musical chapter transitions.
There are no weak performances here, with both Caine and Keitel creating a sincere onscreen relationship that is a joy to watch. The screen veterans bring a wealth of experience to their contrasting characters: Fred is distinctively British and resigned to a certain apathy while the American Mick still wants to make a mark on life. They are key to making Youth not only Sorrentino’s most touching film to date but also proof that aging film stars don’t always have to settle for less: while DeNiro picks up the paychecks willy-nilly, these two legendary actors prove there are still standards to uphold. Oscar nominations should be imminent.
(For the sake of this argument, we’ll cheekily forget the fact Caine recently starred in The Last Witch Hunter. Everyone's allowed a slip up here and there.)
Paul Dano is understatedly brilliant (as always) as the young method actor who is burdened by his career-making turn and who is researching a historical role that will leave many aghast at breakfast. As for Rachel Weisz, she avoids making her character the spoilt brat she could have been and instead makes Lena a fragile soul whose touching-yet-impassioned monologue aimed at her neglectful dad has got to be one of her career bests.
There’s also something wonderful about seeing Jane Fonda rock up for an extended cameo as an aging diva who gives a meta-discourse on Hollywood and television. The scene where she addresses Mick, saying that “nobody ever speaks frankly in this fucking film world” and that he doesn’t “understand cinema anymore because you’re old and you’re tired” is one of Youth’s highlights.
Many will see Youth as a step down from The Great Beauty. Not so: Sorrentino’s latest takes itself seriously in the right places and contains enough humour, irony and mild satire to circumvent any trite navel-gazing. Admittedly, there’s the odd clunker with certain lines feeling a tad too stilted but this elegantly choreographed film works as a quietly melancholic meditation on aging and sporadically surreal ode to cinema.
- D - 13/11/15