Tag: Joan Allen

Face/Off (1997)

Nicolas Cage and John Travolta swop faces (yes really) in Face/Off

Director: John Woo

Cast: John Travolta (FBI Agent Sean Archer), Nicolas Cage (Castor Troy), Joan Allen (Eve Archer), Alessandro Nivola (Pollux Troy), Gina Gershon (Sasha Hassler), Dominique Swain (Jamie Archer), Nick Cassavetes (Dietrich Hassler), Harve Presnell (FBI Director Victor Lazarro), Colm Feore (Dr Malcolm Walsh), John Carroll Lynch (Guard Walton), CCH Pounder (Hollis Miller)

After five years, Sean Archer (John Travolta) has finally caught his nemesis, terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). But, with Castor in a coma, only his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) – yup really – knows the location of the deadly bomb they planted in Los Angeles. With Pollux now in prison how can they get him to talk? Well obviously the easiest way is for Archer to undergo extensive, experimental surgery to alter his build, voice and (piece de resistance) have his face removed and replaced with Castor Troy’s. And of course, this should be top secret so no-one knows it happened. Because there is absolutely no chance Castor will wake up from his coma and have Archer’s face placed on his own head is there? But of course. Let the violent mayhem ensue, as Troy/Archer (Travolta) manipulates the FBI for his own ends and Archer/Troy (Cage) battles to reclaim his life and face.

Reading that, it won’t surprise you to hear that Face/Off is a hyper-reality film. Hailing from the 90s, when Hong Kong gun-fu director John Woo was seen as the auteur of action, every single thing is dialled up to eleven. Early in the film Archer is told that the voice-alterer attached to his vocal codes could be dislodged ‘by a violent cough’. Needless to say, it doesn’t shift once during the orgy of intense, balletic violence that follows, no matter how many times Archer/Troy flings himself through the air, guns blazing, or flips backwards to avoid bullets.

Face/Off it’s clear is a very silly film. It works, because it knows it is a very silly film. It dabbles only lightly in the psychological trauma of finding yourself in another body – and in Archer’s case not just any body, but the body of his son’s killer. But it’s less interested in that than in seeing the two actors have immense fun apeing each other’s intonations and mannerisms. Travolta in particular has a whale of a time as the id-like Troy/Archer, campily springing about the stage and good-naturedly mocking his own physique (“This ridiculous chin”), while prancing about with all the wide-eyed, giggling mania Cage has made his own.

In case you hadn’t worked it out in a film where faces can be swopped, nothing feels like it’s happening in the real world. Gun battles defy logic and physics. Archer’s obsessive pursuit of Troy in the film’s opening battle causes a jaw-dropping level of destruction, mayhem and death (in a real world, with his obvious psychological problems, he would have been off the case years ago). But then, he’s so reckless perhaps that’s why people don’t really notice when he’s replaced by Troy.

There are some interesting beats, many of them centred around Troy/Archer’s arrival in the Archer family home where he forms a superficial bond with Archer’s daughter (including saving her from assault from a creepy boyfriend) that, aside from his obvious insanity, perhaps things could be different (and there is a suggestion Troy/Archer plays with the idea of going straight – or at least a corrupt version of it). Joan Allen comes on board to add acting lustre as Archer’s doctor wife, so distant from her husband for years that she needs time to work out he’s been replaced.

But the film’s heart is in the violence. There are five or six action set-pieces that use every weapon in the Woo arsenal. Slow-mo? Check. Operatic grandness? Check. Walking with intent? Check. Diving forward while firing two guns? You betcha. Doves? But of course. Any real sense of logic is thrown out of the window, and really the film at heart is a comedy of two famous actors pretending to be each other, in between jumping at each other, screaming their heads off, practically making gun noises while they point their weapons, like maniac kids.

And, you know what? It works. Sure the entire enterprise feels very much of its time: and Face/Off captures Woo’s style so perfectly (with its huge body-count and reckless disregard for life and property) that he never topped it again. A director who basically could do one thing really well (future films would merely demonstrate his limitations), throwing himself into a film of intense silliness, with big-name stars having a whale of time and action set-pieces that make no real sense but are impressive to watch, he aces it here. Face/Off is an odd classic of its time, ludicrously silly but always choosing to double-down on its intense silliness – to gloriously entertaining effect.

Nixon (1995)

Anthony Hopkins triumphs as Nixon in Oliver Stone’s surprisingly sympathetic biopic

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Richard Nixon), Joan Allen (Pat Nixon), James Woods (HR Haldeman), Powers Boothe (Alexander Haig), Larry Hagman (“Jack Jones”), Ed Harris (E. Howard Hunt), Dan Hedaya (Trini Cardoza), Bob Hoskins (J. Edgar Hoover), Madeline Kahn (Martha Mitchell), EG Marshall (John Mitchell), David Paymer (Ron Ziegler), David Hyde Pierce (John Dean), Paul Sorvino (Henry Kissinger), Mary Steenburgen (Hannah Nixon), JT Walsh (John Ehrlichman), Sam Waterston (Richard Helms), Brian Bedford (Clyde Tolson), Tom Bower (Francis Nixon), Kevin Dunn (Charles Colson), Annabeth Gish (Julie Nuxon), Tom Goldwyn (Harold Nixon), Saul Rubinek (Herbert G Klein)

In 1995, there was one person the chronicler of the 1970s American experience, Oliver Stone, hadn’t covered: Richard M Nixon. The man who was the embodiment of the dark scar on the American consciousness, the grim, unlovable presence behind the war in Vietnam, the protests and the deep, never-ending wound of Watergate, who seemed to drag the country further and further into the abyss. The man who besmirched the office, the least popular president ever, the national shame. With Stone’s searing attacks on everything from Vietnam policy to the conspiracies behind the Kennedy assassination, you’d expect his film on Nixon to be a condemnation. What people didn’t expect was a film as strikingly even-handed as this, which recasts Nixon not as a gloating villain, but a Shakespearean figure, a Greek tragedy of a man destroyed by chronic character flaws.

Opening with a crushed Nixon, like a drunken Gollum cradling his precious, listening to his precious tapes in the bowels of the White House during his final days in office, the film is told in a fascinatingly non-linear style – loosely falling into two acts, cutting backwards and forwards in time. The first act covers most of Nixon’s career up to the presidency, focusing on his Quaker childhood and the influence of his mother Hannah (Mary Steenburgen), his defeat in the 1960 election to Kennedy and his years rebuilding his political standing. The second half takes a more linear approach, covering a Presidency becoming increasingly bogged down in the inept cover-up of Watergate and increasingly desperate attempts to save his presidency, intermixed with foreign policy successes.

What is really striking is that Stone’s movie finds a great deal of sympathy for this troubled and complex man. He’s a man who has greatness in his grasp, dedicated, intelligent and with vision – but fatally undermined by self-loathing, self-pity and a bubbling resentment about not having the love of the people. Like Lear raging against the storm, or Macbeth bemoaning the impact of his vile deeds, Stone’s Nixon becomes a sympathetic figure, even while the film makes no apologies for his actions, his aggressive bombing of Cambodia (the film notes at its end the bombing led directly to the massacres of the Khmer Rouge) or his failures to claim any responsibility for how he caused his own end.

Stone’s empathetic vision of Nixon is shaped largely by Anthony Hopkins’ titanic performance in the lead role. Hopkins makes no real effort – beyond teeth and hair – to look like Nixon, but brilliantly embodies Nixon’s awkward physicality and, above all, his angry, bitter, resentful personality. It’s not an imitation, but it totally captures him. Hopkins has got it, and the disintegration of Nixon over the course of the film into the shambling, miserable, twitching, even slightly unhinged mess he became in the final days of his presidency is astounding. 

It works because Hopkins never loses sense of the potential for greatness in Nixon – sure he’s socially awkward (Hopkins superbly captures Nixon’s awkward grin, his stumbling nervousness in conversation), but politically he’s assured, confident and has huge insight into realpolitik. His flaw is that he wants to be both the master politician and the people’s champ, to be Nixon and JFK, to have the people cheer him to the rafters. It’s a longing that turns to resentment, fuelling insecurity and fear, that causing him to be so afraid of being cheated that he cheats first and bigger.

It’s that potential for greatness that swims through Stone’s masterfully made, electric film. Stone’s love for mixing film stock, fake newsreel footage, snazzy camerawork, switching colour stock, stylistically eclectic sound and music choices and bombastic lecturing comes to the fore here – and I accept it won’t be for everyone. But for me it works. It’s a big, dramatic movie because it covers an epic theme. From its early echoes of Citizen Kane – the White House as Xanadu, those missing 18 ½ minutes of the tape Nixon’s “Rosebud” – through to the accelerated pace and film stock as events spiral out of the President’s control, it’s an explosion of style that really works, even if there are points which are too on-the-nose (a scene where Nixon’s dinner talk of war is interrupted by a steak that leaks gallons of blood as he cuts into it, is clumsy in the extreme).

Stone’s theories revolve around the true villain being the government-financial power system itself, a grindingly oppressive beast chews up and spits out the men who think they can ride it. Nixon may know about the danger of the system, but he’s as powerless as anyone else. Its tendrils extend everywhere, from the creepily domineering CIA chief Helms (Sam Waterston, unsettlingly intimidating in scenes restored in the director’s cut) to the shady Texan money interests (led by an excellent Larry Hagman of all people) who sure-as-shit want to get rid of that liberal, Cuban surrender monkey Kennedy, by any means necessary (“Say Kennedy dont run in 64?”). 

Nixon wants to control it, to do some good – and the film is excellent at stressing how Nixon’s poverty-filled Quaker background gave him a drive to achieve but also a chippy insecurity and moral standards from his imperious mother he can never hope to meet – but what hope does he have? In any case, his own deep moral failings doom any chance of forging his own goals, sucking him into a quagmire where long-running dirty deeds, shady deals and unedifying company consume him. “When they look at you they see what want to be. When they look at me they see what they are” Nixon complains to the painting of Kennedy, the rival whom he can never eclipse, the man born with all the advantages Nixon never had, the millionaire embraced by the people while the working-class Nixon is reviled. It’s these resentments that consume and destroy Nixon, and Stone presents this as an epic tragedy of a great politician, crushed by his fundamentally human flaws.

Around Hopkins, Stone assembles a brilliant cast. Joan Allen is superb as Nixon’s loving but insightful wife who won’t shy to speak truth to power. James Woods is perfect as the bullishly aggressive, fiercely loyal Haldeman. Paul Sorvino does a wonderfully arch impersonation of Kissinger, always keeping his distance. David Hyde Pierce makes a smoothly innocent but determinedly self-preserving John Dean, Powers Boothe a wonderful cold Alexander Haig. Only Bob Hoskins gives a performance slightly too broad as Hoover – but he still laces the role with a crackling menace.

Nixon is a great film, an explosion of style (perhaps at times a little too much), which painstakingly strips bare the President’s psyche – his doubt, guilt, bitterness, resentments and finally overwhelming self-pity. Powered by a titanically well-observed performance by Anthony Hopkins, who is just about perfect in every frame – every nuance feels real – Nixon is a wallow in the dark underbelly of America, which hints throughout at the even greater dangers that lie under the surface, the powerful system maintaining the status quo that sees presidents come and go, but never allows any real change. It’s a remarkable film.

The Crucible (1996)

Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis are swept up in the heated emotions of small-town Salem in The Crucible

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (John Proctor), Winona Ryder (Abigail Williams), Paul Scofield (Judge Thomas Danforth), Joan Allen (Elizabeth Proctor), Bruce Davison (Reverend Samuel Parris), Rob Campbell (Reverend John Hale), Jeffrey Jones (Thomas Putnam), Peter Vaughan (Giles Corey), Karron Graves (Mary Warren), Charlayne Woodard (Tituba), Frances Conroy (Ann Putnam), Elizabeth Lawrence (Rebecca Nurse), George Gaynes (Jude Samuel Sewell), Mary Pat Gleason (Martha Corey)

The Crucible is now so well-known, it’s virtually a shared cultural reference point. Surely we have all studied it at some point at school, or seen it on stage (or both). The play helped “witch trial” become a common short-hand for an increasingly vicious campaign conducted by society against a group within it. The Crucible works so effectively as a play because it is both simultaneously a brilliant recreation of the time it is staging, and a play of universal themes which is for all time.

In Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, the young girls of the village are caught dancing around a fire in the woods late at night by Reverend Paris (Bruce Davison). The next day, some of the girls will not awaken from fits, and rumours of witchcraft spread. Terrified of the blame being pinned on her, the girls’ ring-leader Abigail Willams (Winona Ryder) “confesses” to being tempted by the devil and swiftly accuses other people in the village (often at the prompting of senior villagers keen to remove rivals and resolve old feuds). However, Abigail’s real target is Elizabeth Proctor (Joan Allen), the wife of Abigail’s former lover John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis). The accusations quickly spiral into a series of trials based on the girl’s “evidence”, conducted by Judge Thomas Danforth (Paul Scofield).

The Crucible may be one of the finest adaptations of a play ever made. With the script adapted for the film by Arthur Miller itself, the play is effectively opened out and subtly restructured (the original is essentially four acts, each a single scene in a single location) to allow different character interactions, earlier introductions, and to show us things only implied in the original play. Many will complain about the film showing us rather than allowing our imaginations to work, but the film never loses the ideas and themes of the original play and gives it a real emotional force. What the film might sacrifice in the claustrophobia of small rooms, it more than makes up for in getting across a real sense of a community consumed by hysteria.

Nicholas Hytner – in only his second movie – directs with great skill, using a number of low-angle lenses to make ceilings loom over the scene. He mixes this with sweeping shots (beautifully filmed) of the Massachusetts countryside, which looks increasingly windswept and bleak. He really understands how to play the film “straight” – to let its universality speak by grounding it in the Salem countryside, without tipping the hat. His theatrical experience works wonders for the set-piece scenes, which sizzle with tension and brilliance, with Hytner allowing moments where you can almost convince yourself everything is going to be OK.

Miller’s expanded screenplay also allows an even greater sense of the hidden corruption of the trials, and how they are misappropriated by certain members of the village. Far more than even in the play, you get a real sense of old scores being settled, and of odd-balls and eccentrics being targeted. Frances Conroy (pre-Six Feet Under fame) is excellent as Ann Putnam, using accusations to alleviate her own bitterness at the loss of her children, while her husband is a spittle-mouthed bully, shamelessly using the trial as a landgrab (well played by Jeffrey Jones, awkward as it is to see him in a movie – google it).

In this nightmare village of suspicion and accusation, Abigail Williams is the only person who really understands the opportunities and dangers fully. Winona Ryder is often overlooked in this film, but her brilliant expressiveness is perfect for Abigail. She really adds depth and shade to the character – yes she is bitter and angry and ruthless and shameless, but she’s also scared and genuinely in love with John, and you get flashes of doubt and even regret over what she is doing.

The object of her obsession is John Proctor. Daniel Day-Lewis – Miller’s son-in-law – takes on the role and he is of course as excellent as you might expect. Day-Lewis’ key roles are such larger-than-life landmarks in cinema, it’s easy to overlook him playing a role taken on by so many other actors. At first, you almost feel it might be a waste – but he gives it a growing emotional commitment and force. He may be the one sane man in the storm of hysteria, but Day-Lewis doesn’t lose track of Proctor’s inner cowardliness, his corruption, his bitterness. Day-Lewis’ performance repositions the role as a man who has to learn to stand for something. It’s a superb performance.

He’s equally matched by Joan Allen, whose performance as Elizabeth Proctor throbs with dignity, but also a puritan strength of faith that makes it easy to imagine that Proctor would feel overwhelmed by a sense of being weighed in the balance and found wanting. She and Day-Lewis have a beautifully played, hugely emotional scene late on in a windswept field which (like so many other scenes in this production) briefly suggests a hope for the future.

Paul Scofield did so few films that each of his rare performances is to be treasured (this was his last film performance). His Danforth is simply superb, probably close to the definitive performance. It trades a lot on an inversion of Scofield’s most famous performance as Thomas More. Scofield plays Danforth as a man filled with certainty without a trace of doubt, who is married to the word of the law but has no understanding of the spirit of it. In Scofield’s masterful performance, flashes of arrogance and pride intermix with a genuine sense of faith and morality. His Danforth is convinced everything he does is right – a position that allows him to commit many wrongs.

The film is rounded out by several other excellent roles: Bruce Davison is outstandingly weaselly as Samuel Paris, Peter Vaughan has a wily shrewdness as Giles Corey, Rob Campbell is increasingly filled with doubt and anger as Hale, Karron Graves is wonderful as a desperate and scared Mary Warren. Mary Pat Gleason is perfect as the proud Martha Corey, while George Gaynes subtly suggests a man consumed with doubt as Judge Sewell.

“Anybody seeing The Cruciblenow would never dream that it had been a play” said Arthur Miller on this adaptation. He’s right. This must be one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations there has ever been, with all involved totally understanding what made the play great while expanding and deepening the content for film. It’s a marvellous film.

Room (2015)

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay deal with a horrifying entrapment in Room

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Brie Larson (‘Ma’/Joy Newsome), Jacob Tremblay (Jack Newsome), Joan Allen (Nancy Newsome), William H. Macy (Robert Newsome), Sean Bridgers (Old Nick), Tom McCamus (Leo)

Several years ago, I read a book on the train while coming back from Manchester. I wasn’t even sure why I had bought it: the cover made the story look fluffy and empty and (horror of horrors) it was narrated by a child. Surely a recipe for a tiresome read. I couldn’t be more wrong: I couldn’t put it down. Room was sensitive, it was heartbreaking, it was life-affirming, it was fantastic. If that’s not a tricky act to follow, I don’t know what is.

Room tells the story of Ma (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who live together in a small room, with one skylight and no contact with the outside. Ma has built a whole world of childish adventure and excitement for Jack in this room, and their days are filled with games and laughter. But the audience knows better: at night Jack sleeps in the cupboard, ordered never to come out as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) comes into the room and sleeps with Ma. Ma (or Joy) is a woman in her early twenties, kidnapped and trapped in this room for seven years.

Room is an extraordinary piece of film-making, which really captures the compelling richness of a fantastic novel. However, one thing I think is very interesting about this film is the varied reactions it receives from people. I watched this film with my wife, and we had quite different reactions to it: she found it bleak (despite having a positive ending), while I found it (like the book) a hopeful and positive film, a life-affirming story about the conquest of innocence over adversity.

Abrahamson has perfectly captured the tone and style of what was already a hypnotic and engaging book. In the book, the entire story is interpreted through the eyes of the child. The reader knows the situation is far more dangerous and sinister, but we see the confined world of the room from the viewpoint of a child who literally knows nothing else. The book requires the reader to tell themselves the “full story” between the lines of the child’s perceptions.

In the film this is much harder to create – we can see everything for ourselves. What Abrahamson and Donoghue (who adapted the script from her own novel) do so well is keeping the child at the centre, and filtering much the film through him – we don’t see or experience anything Jack doesn’t. This means that Abrahamson is able to bring some of the love Jack feels for the room around him into the story – an opening montage of their daily routine, including eating, play and exercise, shows that to a kid, this could be seen as a fun place to live.

It’s also, for Jack, an extraordinarily safe place: he knows every inch of his universe, and never encounters anything that he does not know or has not seen before. The struggle for Jack is not to escape the room, but to grow up – to accept the existence of a wider world around him and leave childhood security behind. It’s a theme in that helps make the film universal, despite its extraordinary circumstances, as a heartfelt coming-of-age story. Abrahamson’s skilful and brilliantly subtle direction threads this concept through the entire story, undercutting its potential bleakness and providing it with warmth and depth.

The fact that this was (for me anyway!) an uplifting film demonstrates with what grace it has been put together. The alternative story that runs underneath Jack’s full understanding is handled with sensitivity but unflinching honesty. Joy may go out of her way to protect Jack from what is really happening to her – imprisoned and routinely raped several times a week – but the viewer understands far more. When Jack says there are days when “Ma just needs to sleep all day” we know the causes of her feeling – and the quiet shot of Joy silent and still under a duvet speaks volumes of the mental strain she is under.

So why is this uplifting? Because for me, this story is about Joy’s struggle to keep her son innocent, to keep him safe and to protect him from the reality of what is going on around him. To make sure that his father never has a piece of him. In this she is completely successful: in fact, her focus is so overwhelmingly on protecting Jack that later in the film, when events remove the need for this, she herself undergoes a terrible mental collapse. But the message throughout is Joy’s overwhelming love for her son and her desire to protect him: and this makes her story, in a strange way, a triumph.

Joy’s story also seems (eventually) positive, due to the power of Brie Larson’s performance. Winner of a well-deserved Oscar, Larson is unflinching in her empathy for Joy’s situation, her dedication to the role apparent in every frame. She never allows Joy to become weak – she may be trapped, she may suffer from depression, but she has an inner strength that has developed from her fixation on the welfare of her son. She is uncompromising though in playing the reality of the emotional burden Joy is carrying both for herself and her son.

Larson also deserves much credit – as does Abrahamson’s direction – for the simply breathtaking work from Jacob Tremblay as Jack. It’s no exaggeration to say that without a child capable of delivering a performance like this, the film could not have existed. Tremblay’s performance is completely natural, totally unforced and deeply affecting. We totally invest in his fate. He has the pressure of carrying huge chunks of the film and does so with complete confidence. He and Larson have a totally natural chemistry between them, a bond that seems unshakeable.

This is a film I found profoundly moving – there are several moments (at least three) where I felt a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes: moments of sadness, but also moments of triumph and moments of simple human warmth. It’s a spoiler to even say that there are other people in this film, but the second half of the film widens the story and subtly changes its nature: it is a survival story from the start, but it’s also one of adjustment and recovery. This later act of the film is as wonderfully told as the first part, rich with empathy and human emotion.

Room is a truly wonderful film, a small scale story about huge and powerful themes that wears its greatness very lightly. Lenny Abrahamson’s direction – both technically and in its control of actors and story – is exceptional, creating a film that balances dozens of tones with aplomb. Like I said, it’s a film that invites you to take many readings from it: it’s a film about a victim, that feels like a triumph story; a film about a confined world that teaches us about the wider world; a film about imprisonment that feels like a celebration of freedom. It’s an extraordinary work, and there isn’t enough praise for Larson and Tremblay. I can’t imagine not being moved again the next time I see this – it’s a film for the ages.