Tag: Naomi Watts

Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises (2007)

Brutal violence in London’s underbelly in Cronenberg’s formal and chilling dark fairytale

Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Nikolai Luzhin), Naomi Watts (Anna Ivanova Khitrova), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Semyon), Vincent Cassel (Kirill Semyonovich), Sinead Cusack (Helen), Mina E Mina (Azim), Jerzy Skolimowski (Stepan Khitrov), Donald Sumpter (Inspector Yuri), Raza Jaffrey (Dr Aziz), Josef Altin (Ekrem), Tatiana Maslany (Tatiana’s voice)

Big promises shipped back to Russian villages, telling women about dreams they can make reality in the bright lights of London. Those are Eastern Promises – but the reality, of sexual slavery and abuse in Russian Mafia controlled houses is horrifyingly different. Set in an underbelly of London just under grand restaurants and red buses, Eastern Promises is a typically tough and bloody gangster fable from David Cronenberg, which plays out like a nightmare fairytale.

It’s the nightmare of midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts). When a pregnant Russian teenager dies giving birth, the only clue she has to who her daughter’s family might be is a Russian diary and a business card for a Russian restaurant. Anna – whose family are Russian immigrants – is offered help by grandfatherly restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Seymon is all pleasant insistence that he can help, even as asks after every detail of her life. Because Seymon is a ruthless Mafia kingpin, with a hapless son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) leaning on the emotional and practical support of his imposing, heavily tattooed driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). As Anna is pulled further and further into Semyon’s deadly world of death, could she have a surprising saviour?

Cronenberg’s film, sharply scripted by Steven Knight, is shot with a traditional stillness and a palette of strong colours – all of which reassuring visual language is utterly at odds with the skin-slashing violence at its heart. Eastern Promises opens with a Russian gangster practically having his head sawn off with a switchblade, in the hands of a mentally-handicapped nephew of a minor Turkish gangster. There isn’t a single gun in Eastern Promises – after all that would be breaking British law! – instead violence is meted out with the violent intimacy of a knife across the throat.

The film’s formal structure and framing – angles and cutting are kept simple, almost static – works brilliantly. As we watch throats slashed, grim sexual encounters or moments of imposing menace, the matter-of-fact presentation of these become more-and-more chilling. Eastern Promises feels like a bogey-man fable. Seymon’s restaurant – all class and bright red walls – an ogre’s cavern that leads us into an ever-grimmer world of violence and mayhem.

It’s a world Anna is unprepared for. Determined and resilient, Naomi Watts’ Anna is also undone by her politeness. How can she refuse an offer to help from someone as polite as Seymon? Watts does extremely well with a slightly under-written role, a woman on a quest who slowly realises how terrible the world she is peeking into is, but stop from trying to force through what she believes is right. Her disbelief – and out-of-place semi-innocence and sense of moral duty – make her stand out all the more in this terrible underbelly world, full of ogres and secret codes.

At the centre of is a monster. Armin Mueller-Stahl looks like your favourite uncle, but he quietly exudes cold, remorseless villainy. He’s the sort of man who delights in cooking the finest borsch, playfully teases his granddaughter’s violin playing and doesn’t bat an eyelid about ordering a rival to be dismembered. Mueller-Stahl is terrifying as this man the audience instinctively knows is dangerous and will stop at no moral boundaries to get what he wants (watch the steely eyed kindness he asks Anna where she works, lives and who she knows during their first meeting).

The obvious moral void in Seymon makes the unreadable Nikolai even more intriguing. Played with an extraordinary physical and linguistic commitment by Mortensen, Nikolai’s body is a tattooed walking advert of his past and capacity for violence and he’s the sort of relaxed heavy who is as unfussed with stubbing a cigarette out on his tongue as he is with snipping fingers off a corpse. Mortensen’s skill here is to make us constantly unsure where the moral lines are for Nikolai. He is a confirmed killer, but he takes an interest in Anna. Is this sexual or protective? What does he make of his bosses’ brutality towards women? What does he think of his direct superior Kirill?

Kirill is played with a larger-than-life weakness by Vincent Cassel in a thrilling performance that constantly shifts expectations. At first, he seems like a drunken blow-hard with a capacity for thoughtless violence. But Cassel makes clear he is a weak man with some principles, bullied by his father (to whom he is a constant disappointment), desperate to prove he is more capable than he is. He has an emotional reliance on Nikolai laced with sexual fascination (he can barely keep his hands off him).

Nikolai seems to accept this. But we don’t seem to know why. His actions are constantly open to interpretation. Ordered to have sex with a prostitute, he almost apologises to her after – left alone with her after Kirill has watched their sexual encounter, he’s strangely tender. He urges Anna to keep her distance but follows orders with calm disinterest. How far will he go? What moral qualms does he have, if any? Mortensen’s carefully judged performance is a master-class in inscrutability in a film that plays its cards very close to its chest as to why he (and others) do the things they do.

Cronenberg’s entire film is structured like this. Is the dragon a dragon or a potential knight? Can Anna emerge from this semi-Lynchian nightmare world and return to normal life – or will everything connected to her be destroyed by this world. Cronenberg’s study of this shady, heartless world is masterful. The “rules” and code of this brutal Russian Mafia world are excellently explored. And the film’s formal style culminates in a stunningly violent but beautiful (if that’s the right word) fight between a nude Mortensen and two knife-wielding Checians in a Turkish bath that is a brutal model for how these things can be done.

Eastern Promises resolves itself, after twists and turns, into something more comforting and traditional than you might expect. But is it a fairy tale ending to a nightmare? Either way, Cronenberg’s mix of formality and unflinching gore is masterful and in Mortensen it has a performance both relaxed and full of tightly-wound violence. Tough but essential.

Mulholland Dr (2001)

Mulholland Dr (2001)

Surrealist, dream-like images fill a film that’s wilfully complex, perplexing and probably Lynch’s masterpiece

Director: David Lynch

Cast: Naomi Watts (Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn), Laura Harring (Rita/Camilla Rhodes), Justin Theroux (Adam Kesher), Ann Miller (Coco), Mark Pellegrino (Joe), Patrick Fischler (Dan), Michael Cooke (Herb), Dan Hedaya (Vincenzo Castigliane), Angelo Badalamenti (Luigi Castigliane), Michael J Anderson (Mr Roque), Monty Montgomery (The Cowboy), Lee Grant (Louise Bonner), James Karen (Wally Brown), Chad Everett (Jimmy Katz), Melissa George (Camilla Rhodes), Billy Ray Cyrus (Gene), Lori Heuring (Lorainne Kesher)

Spoilers: I’ll be discussing in detail the plot (if you can call it that) including its final act reveals which are crucial for understanding the film. So watch it first!

Where do you begin? Mulholland Drive feels like the culmination of Lynch’s work, a perfect boiling down of Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet into a surrealistic meditation on Hollywood, wish-fulfilment, dreams and reality. It’s both wilfully inaccessible and surprisingly clear, both coldly cruel and achingly tender, full of hope and devoid of happiness. It’s tough, cryptic, engrossing viewing and unpeels like an onion (and likely to have the same effect on you as that vegetable). Every scene may mean everything or nothing, but there is not a moment of it that isn’t darkly, thrillingly engrossing.

It starts with a car crash on Mulholland Drive – but not before a stream of seemingly disconnected images that only later reveal their importance, including a women on a bed and a dizzying array of disconnected jittybug dancers drifting across the screen like paper cut-outs before a purple background. The car crash involves a mysterious woman ‘Rita’ (Laura Harring) who narrowly escapes being murdered but is left with amnesia. She stumbles to the house of Betty (Naomi Watts), a newly arrived girl in Hollywood, eager to become an actress. With only a bag of money and a mysterious blue key to go on, Rita and Betty search to find out who Rita is. Meanwhile, director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) finds his film (which Betty wants to audition for) being taken over by gangsters. Did I also mention an incompetent-but-brutal hitman, a supernaturally omniscient albino cowboy and a monstrous goblin-like hobo who lives behind a diner and can kill on sight?

Mulholland Drive grew out of Lynch’s plans for a new Twin Peaks style TV series. He shot a pilot, the footage from which takes up much of the first two thirds. Like Twin Peaks it was full of mysterious alleyways to be explored: it’s amnesiac lead, mysterious money and blue key, shadowy gangsters (even led by Twin Peaks veteran Michael J Anderson, here in a Red Room style hide-away, his head attached to a prosthetic body), creepy supernatural nightmare elements. Alas, the executives hated it (it wasn’t exactly Desperate Housewives), but French investors stepped in to fund Lynch turning it into a surrealist movie, with an additional half an hour of footage to an ending (of a sort).

A sort of ending is what we get. Mulholland Drive is a famously confusing, impenetrable film. But to me it seems clear. Lynch’s solution was to turn all the pilot footage into a bizarre and terrible dream – and latch on an ending set in the ‘real world’ which re-presents characters, events and throwaway moments in surprising new lights, leading us to radically reinterpret everything. Effectively, the first two-thirds are the guilt-ridden nightmare of Diane (Watts again), a failed actress in Hollywood who paid for a hit on a star actress Camilla (Harring again) who she believes seduced and spurned her. In her dream, Diane reimagines both herself and Camilla exactly as she wishes they were: herself unspoilt by Hollywood with preternatural talent, Camilla as an amnesiac utterly reliant on her.

What we have here is dreams as wish fulfilment: and what city is more about that, than Hollywood? Mulholland Drive plays as the dark underbelly of Sunset Boulevard (pretty dark and bitter already!). Lynch’s Hollywood is a vicious, heartless, bloody place, where cruelty and death are commonplace. In ‘the dream’ the gangsters – terrifying cameos from Hedaya and composer Badalamenti, the latter dribbling inadequate coffee from his mouth during a meeting in a grotesque power play – call the shots. Reality might be worse. This heartless factory of dreams chews up and spits out innocents like Diane, turning her from naïve and optimistic into  bitter, twisted shell, emotionally maladjusted, locked in her apartment tearily in thrall to her worst instincts.

It makes sense in a way that the film is dominated (probably) by a dream. Hollywood is the town of stories, and it’s perversely logical that the unreality should feel so detailed, engrossing and narratively compelling while what is (probably) reality is fragmented, mundane and laced with cruelty. To the people of films, stories are richer and more freeing than anything that happens in real life and infinitely more comforting.

Comfort is what our dreamer wants. Naomi Watt’s Betty seems like a cliché of a small-town girl, swept up in the big city. Full of aw-shucks charm, the eagle-eyed will spot little moments of strength that feel out of character. There are micro-flashes of anger and she’s determined to break into a mysterious, abandoned house to find a clue when Rita runs. She’s a gifted actress, turning a mundane script in an audition (a script she and Rita laugh at) into a simmering performance of sexual control that stuns the room. But this is a multi-layed performance, just one facet of a whole.

Because Betty’s talent is recognised in the way her ‘real-world’ counterpart Diane – stuck in small supporting roles, gifts from Camilla – never is. There are touches of this in that audition: the director is the least involved and speaks only in vague bullshit. Its not just that talent recognition: in the dream she can turn her lover Camilla, an independent and (perhaps) selfish figure, into someone so dependent on her that she literally doesn’t even know who she is. She even turns the man Camilla leaves her for, into a deluded, humiliated cuckold in thrall to gangsters.

Lynch’s crafting of this dream is flawless. He can mine tension from even the smallest moments. Innocuous events – two men sitting in a diner, a kind old couple in a cab, a business meeting, a singing audition – drip with menace and unknown horror. His camera frequently, almost imperceptibly weaves, as if held floating in space. Logic jumps and sudden transitions abound. Lights flicker and time never obeys rules. He is also a master of black humour: a hit-job gone wrong (with bodies and a vacuum cleaner joining the carnage) is hilarious, as is Kesher’s unexpected arrival home to find his wife in bed with a muscular pool cleaner.

Mulholland Drive is also a sensitive and highly emotional romance story between two lost souls. Betty, naïve and helpful and Rita, who clings with gratitude and adoration to the woman who helps her. Moments of sexual tenderness between these two are shot with erotic beauty: contrasted sharply with the more sordid, aggressive couplings between them in ‘reality’.

But these mix with moments of chilling, unspeakable horror. The hideous goblin living behind a diner, an embodiment of all that is cruel, evil and twisted, later clutching a box the releases the furies themselves seem to leap from. Is this a dark expression of the dreamer’s own guilt (which seems to be transferred to “Dan” a man we see literally dying of fright in a diner that becomes crucial later)? The Cowboy, who may or may not be of this world, glanced at two dreadful moments (just as he promises) seems to guides the dream. And the Silencio club, a theatre of the bizarre, disturbing auditory and visual twists and turns that serves as the gateway between dream and reality – something Betty subconsciously knows, vibrating in terror in her seat, knowing this fantasy she has crafted is under siege from dark elements of the truth demanding she acknowledge them.

Mulholland Drive deconstructs itself at every turn, aided by Lynch’s wonderful, hypnotic surrealistic touches. What’s beautiful about it, perhaps, is it leaves it very much up to you. For me, the desire for dreams to be fulfilled is crucial. It’s all captured in Watts and Harring’s multi-layered performances, their versions of the same women contrasting and complementing each other. Lynch allows their personalities to blur both in character and in visuals (Rita ends up in a matching wig in touches of Vertigo while the film’s blurring of two personalities echoes Bergman’s Persona, including a homage via a shot where both faces seem to merge into one).

An intense, fascinating dream-like exploration of several classic Lynchian themes, Mulholland Drive is his finest, most rewarding film. One which, whatever interpretation you place on its events, grips and challenges you at every moment, full of scenes which spark a mixture of imagination, horror and intrigue. Powered by two wonderful performances at its lead, both with just the right mix of reality and fantasy about them, it’s an extraordinary film.

The Impossible (2013)

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland survive extreme circumstances in The Impossible

Director: JA Bayona

Cast: Naomi Watts (Maria), Ewan McGregor (Henry), Tom Holland (Lucas), Samuel Joslin (Thomas), Oaklee Pendergast (Simon), Marta Etura (Simone), Sönke Möhring (Karl), Geraldine Chaplin (Old Woman)

In 2004 the Boxing Day tsunami hit the Indian ocean. The resulting tidal waves devastated communities in several countries, with almost a quarter of a million casualties. The impact left rich and poor alike in a desperate struggle to survive. These terrible events form the basis of this emotionally powerful, if sometimes manipulative, film that recreates the remarkable story of a Spanish family, separated in the tsunami, who all miraculously survived.

Here the family is re-imagined as British (presumably to sell the film around the world a little easier, as they now all speak English). Maria (Naomi Watts) is a doctor who for the last few years has been a stay-at-home mum for her three sons Lucas (Tom Holland), on the cusp of becoming a teenager, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendegast), both younger. Her husband is businessman Henry (Ewan McGregor). Staying in Thailand for a Christmas vacation, the family are separated when the tsunami hits their resort. Maria (badly injured) and Lucas make their way to a hospital, where Lucas struggles to get the life-saving treatment his mum needs. Henry is trapped in the resort with their other two sons, desperately trying to find his missing wife and child. Around them swirl an entire country of refugees and affected people, all of them trying to find family members.

The Impossible gets an awful lot right. The recreation of the tsunami is faultless. You’ll feel every moment of terror as the water rips through the family’s high-end vacation spot. As Maria and Lucas are swept far away by a deep swell of fast-flowing water (stuffed with mud, filth and debris) you’ll feel every blow to bodies as debris hammers into them, and feel like you’ve lived through every moment of desperation as the two fight against the current to reach each other. The sense of powerlessness and fear – a mother trying to be brave for her son, a son frightened and desperate for reassurance, ashamed at being scared – are powerful, deeply affecting and hugely immersive. Bayona’s experience of directing horror comes wonderfully into play here, as he knows exactly how to push our buttons and make us feel the emotion, fear and anxiety of the situation.

This tone continues through most of the film’s first hour which largely follows Maria and Lucas as they attempt to reach the hospital. Running on adrenalin, Maria only slowly begins to succumb to exhaustion as her grievous wounds (smashed ribs, a horrifically graphic leg injury) sap her strength, even while she tries to maintain an air of calm for her son. What is intriguing in this sequence is that, like a set of scales, as the mother becomes weaker the son becomes stronger – Lucas suddenly propelled into become an adult. Lucas increasingly takes decisions on how best to survive, argues at times for hard calls and becomes, in many ways, the adult in the situation.

This sequence is helped hugely by the performances of the two actors. The physical commitment of every actor isn’t to be doubted (Holland and Watts spent hellish weeks in water tanks filming – although this is only relative compared to the horror of the actual tsunami). Watts (Oscar-nominated) brings power to a mother who believes she is the only thing her son has left in the world, and must survive at all costs for him. Her buttoning down of her terror for as long as she can is deeply moving, and she brings the part significant heart. Tom Holland is simply a revelation as Lucas. He develops an authority well beyond his years, the complexity of the emotions he deals with – from fear to anger and defiance, determination, anxiety, relief and despair – would have challenged an actor three times his age. Holland never loses trace of the central kindness in Lucas – no matter how desperate the situation – and he is the undoubted star of the film, his portrayal of a child forced to grow up scarily quickly is deeply affecting.

Ewan McGregor offers similarly excellent work. Left searching through the rubble of his holiday home, McGregor brilliantly captures a sense of a father trying to deny that his control over events has disappeared. He excels in an extremely moving breakdown scene – after finally contacting his wife’s parents in the UK, he collapses in desperate, uncontrollable sobs of guilt and fear, apologising for not knowing what to do. It’s some of the actor’s best work, brilliantly tapping into his natural warmth for excellent effect.

Where the film struggles more is in its focus. While it is a story of one – affluent – Western family, so naturally its focus will be there, it does turn the rest of the cast into little more than extras. Some focus is given to the Thai people: a group of poor local people is crucial in saving Maria and Lucas’ lives and getting them to a hospital, their immediate humanity and generosity reducing Maria (and the audience) to tears of gratitude, but that’s the only real look we get at them. The hospital where a large part of the story is set is full of Westerners, bar the staff. All the victims we spend significant time with are white and Western (all are presented sympathetically, bar a pair of Americans for whom the tsunami is a holiday inconvenience).

But you could watch the film and not realise that so many of the people who died were part of the indigenous population – and while thousands of Westerners also perished, the survivors did at least return to their homes, whereas those living in affected countries lost everything.

The film’s other flaw is the manipulative tone it moves into late on, in particular a series of prolonged “missed moments” as the separated family walk around the hospital, just missing each other. This may well have actually happened, but is so contrived that it feels like a narrative flourish. The plot slows down in the second half as the characters search for each other. The film’s final title cards were a perfect opportunity to bring more focus to other victims – and to mention the death toll and impact on the countries – but avoids all of this to simply confirm it’s based on a true story.

The Impossible has lots of powerful moments. Its moments of emotion are raw and affecting and, manipulative as it is, you do celebrate when the family is reunited. But it’s also a film that loses its way a bit – which captures a superb survivalist story but then becomes too sentimental towards its end. And by not doing more to acknowledge the impact on the Thai people, among others, you can’t help but feel it turns this tsunami into something that affected rich, white, Westerners – which is harder to forgive.

King Kong (2005)

Naomi Watts and a mo-cap Andy Serkis bring to life Peter Jackson’s dream in King Kong

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Naomi Watts (Ann Darrow), Jack Black (Carl Denham), Adrien Brody (Jack Driscoll), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Englehorn), Colin Hanks (Preston), Jamie Bell (Jimmy), Andy Serkis (Kong/Lumpy), Evan Parke (Ben Hayes), Kyle Chandler (Bruce Baxter), John Sumner (Herb), Lobo Chan (Choy), Craig Hall (Mike)

In the late 90s Peter Jackson was working hard on putting together the plans for his dream project. It was a complex project, with unprecedented special effects demands, a huge cast, a demanding shoot and a big budget. However, plans fell through, so Jackson decided to move his attention to that Lord of the Rings trilogy idea he had been banging around instead. Hot of the success of that little escapade, he delivered at last his dream: a huge remake of King Kong.

Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a ruthless film director, desperate to make the big epic that will dwarf all others. Pulling together a team including playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and vaudeville dancer Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), he heads out on a ship for location shooting on the mysterious Skull Island. Arriving on the Island, they find that the savage natives aren’t the only dangers on an Island that has bypassed evolution. The crew find themselves hunted by dinosaurs, huge creepy-crawlies and other horrors all while they try to find and rescue Ann from the Island’s Alpha – a huge gorilla, King Kong (famously motion-captured by Andy Serkis). Led by Jack, who has fallen in love with Ann, dangers surround the crew – but is mankind, and the ambitious Carl, the real danger?

Time and public perception has not always been kind to Jackson’s labour of love. Perhaps coloured by the generally negative reception to his Hobbit films (which are a mess), perhaps also by the film being more of a gentle, sentimental film mixed with cartoon-splatter horror rather than the monster-mash B movie later Kong films have been, it’s generally remembered as a bit of a disaster. This is far from fair. Yes it’s overlong (hugely so at well over three hours – nearly twice as long as the original) and over-indulgent but it’s also quite a sweet, if rather tonally mixed, film that more or less manages to keep an audience entertained.

Unlike later films which have enjoyed Kong (or Godzilla) most when he smashes things – even if he is often the film’s hero or at least anti-hero – this Kong film is perhaps at its most contented when it is finding the humanity in the ape. As a 9-year old, Jackson talks about crying when Kong fell dead from the Empire State Building – and it is this engaging giant that he wants to bring to life here. Using Serkis – cementing his reputation here as the whizz of motion capture – to have a human literally inside the Gorilla, giving real expressions and genuine character to a giant ape was deliberate. The film’s most heart-felt – and quietest – moments both involve moments of gentle play or innocence from the Gorilla, either starring at a beautiful sunset (which he does both on the island and on the Empire State) or playfully slipping and sliding on a Central Park frozen lake, this is a monster that Jackson sees as a misunderstand soul, that bond he felt at 9 brought to the screen.

That’s the key between the bond that Ann feels with this beast who starts as potential killer, becomes protector, friend and finally a sort of romantic interest of a kind. Well played by Naomi Watts, Ann Darrow herself is a damaged soul, a bright-eyed, naïve dreamer with a dose of realism slowly entering her soul, who wants to entertain people but also to make her immediate world a better, warmer place. It’s natural that such a person would start to feel a deep bond with Kong, to learn to appreciate his gentleness and protectiveness, to put herself at risk to try and save his life. It’s a huge development of the character from scream-queen, and positions Ann (or tries to) as a more pro-active force in her own story.

And the ape responds to this, slowly revealing his own true nature as a potentially gentle giant, albeit one who is prepared to rip a few T-Rex’s apart to protect his love. He certainly ends up feeling more of an ideal partner for Ann than the other men in the film. Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll is a determined, principled and brave man but there is a touch of inadequacy to him, a surrendering of responsibility and a lack of proactivity in his make-up. While the early love story between the two characters is sensitively drawn, it tellingly can’t survive the events of Skull Island – at least not in the same way.

Mind you Driscoll is better than Denham, who is transformed in this film to a soulless monster interested only in his own greed for fame and power. Jack Black delivers what the script demands – even if the film is pushing on the edge of his range. As Black’s stock has fallen, so perhaps as some of the film’s – and the perception of his performance here. It doesn’t help that the idea of the ruthless film director seems to be a common trope for film director’s to explore (and interesting psychological question there!) so the character’s shallow lack of regard for anyone else, coupled with his fierce ambition to be the greatest showman around start to grate after a while. It’s a character lacking any depth.

But then that’s the case for most of the rest of the cast as well, who struggle to make room in a film that is overloaded with events and action to the detriment of its overall impact. Jackson’s heart may really lie in the quiet moments between beauty and beast – but he also loves an action scene. And King Kong has too many of these. Much of the middle hour of the film is given over to a never-ending parade of events on Skull Island, that after a while seize to have any real impact. As nameless crew members are crushed by boulders, or stampeding dinosaurs, or savaged by giant insects, or have their heads caved in by savage islanders (not surprisingly these H Rider Haggard style savages, with their lust for human sacrifice, drew more than a little criticism – and it hasn’t aged well) you start to feel your interest sagging. Kong’s brawl with three savage T-Rex’s is perfectly made in every respect, except for the fact it goes on forever.

Ambition lies behind every frame (all of them beautiful by the way) of this huge three hour epic monster picture – but it gets all so much that it buries the story. Like Kong himself, it touches the heavens only to fall tragically to Earth, trying to protect the thing it loves. Jackson wants to protect Kong from being just seen as a massive ape that hits things – but loses his way at times when Kong does little more than exactly that. It is still an intelligent and heartfelt film – but it struggles as well with being an uncontrolled play in the sandbox.

J. Edgar (2011)

Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent in Clint Eastwood’s decent J. Edgar

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar Hoover), Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolsen), Naomi Watts (Helen Gandy), Judi Dench (Anne Marie Hoover), Josh Lucas (Charles Lindbergh), Dermot Mulroney (Norman Schwarzkopf), Damon Herriman (Bruno Richard Hauptmann), Jeffrey Donovan (Robert F. Kennedy), Zach Grenier (John Condon), Ken Howard (General Harlan F Stone), Stephen Root (Arthur Koehler), Denis O’Hare (Albert S Osborn), Geoff Pierson (A Mitchell Palmer)

J. Edgar Hoover holds a unique place in American history. As the first ever director of the FBI he ruled it as his own personal fiefdom from 1935 to his death in 1972. A workaholic, he revolutionised the investigation of crime in the USA, centralising records, introducing and championing scientific techniques, and working to change the image of lawmen into heroes. On the other hand, Hoover frequently abused his position, used the FBI to investigate rivals and stamp out groups he judged as dissident, and put together secret files of unpleasant and damaging material on political opponents.

Eastwood’s film actually does a pretty good job of balancing these two J. Edgar Hoovers, and of presenting a fairly even-handed portrait of a man most people see now as the worst example of a power-abusing policeman. The film follows the career of Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), focusing in particular on the Lindbergh kidnapping, clashes with Presidents, and his relationships with his deputy (and probably long-term lover) Clyde Tolsen (Armie Hammer) and with his domineering mother (Judi Dench). 

The film’s main advantage is a typically power-house performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. His Hoover blusters with insecurity, resentment and a monomaniacal obsession with his own sense of right and wrong. He’s the sort of guy who takes a woman on a date because he thinks it’s time to get married and then takes her to see his filing system. Hoover was a man whose life was work and power – but DiCaprio doesn’t forget that amidst the maniacal power grabbing, he had a confused personal sexuality.

The film suggests Hoover repressed his homosexuality due to the influence of his mother (“I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil”), and contrasts this painful struggle with the preppy, tender, manly Clyde Tolsen, played with equal skill by Armie Hammer. Tolsen was Hoover’s long-term friend and companion, they holidayed together, ate meals together, lived opposite each other, and Tolsen even accepted the flag after Hoover was buried – neither man married. The film creates a fairly sweet love story of a man who couldn’t fully accept his own feelings falling in love with a man comfortable with who he was. 

The old-married feeling of this couple – whose physical contact never really goes much further than the occasional hand holding – is the emotional heart of the film. Although the repressed Hoover never admits his love openly (to the occasional hurt of Tolsen), it’s actually a fairly good expression of a normalised same-sex marriage, and Eastwood never succumbs to some of the odder gossip about Hoover’s cross-dressing (except in grief at the death of his mother) or sexual preferences.

His relationship with his mother (whom he lived with his whole life until her death) is more predictable: she is demanding and controlling, he is loving, placid and deferential to her. It’s what we’ve seen before several times – and Judi Dench can play this role standing on her head – but it gives us a nice context to get inside Hoover’s head and understand why he behaved the way he did. 

The film doesn’t lose track of Hoover’s ongoing political clashes. We get showpiece senate hearings as Hoover struggles to establish the FBI with the powers it needs to combat crime (DiCaprio is pretty electric in these scenes). Repeated shots show Hoover watching various inauguration parades, or stopping to stare at the same portrait of Washington as he heads in to meet with (and intimidate) various (unseen) presidents. The film hits these beats hard at times – did we need Hoover telling Robert Kennedy that he has information on “your brother, the President of the United States”? But it’s not afraid to show Hoover unsympathetically, particularly in his vindictive campaign against Martin Luther King.

What Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay, and Eastwood’s professional, smooth direction, do well is explain why Hoover may have hated these people so much. The film focuses on Hoover’s early days – full of anarchist bombings, wildfire communist strikes that led to clashes with the police, years of bank robbers and gangsters carrying on unrestricted in America – that makes you at least understand why he felt America was under threat. 

The film’s reconstruction of period detail is exquisite, and much of the photography has a brilliantly murky, sepia tone to it I really liked. The reconstruction of details from the Lindbergh kidnapping is very well done. All this is much better than some of the wonky “old age” make-up Di Caprio, Hammer and Watts (playing Hoover’s faithful secretary) have to labour under towards the end of the film (Hammer in particular looks slightly ridiculous under laboured liver patches). 

In structure, this is a fairly traditional biopic, and in trying to cover Hoover’s entire career it often skips over or misses key incidents. In an era where “modern” biopics tend to focus on dramatizing one key moment in their subject’s life (such as Selma or Lincoln), J. Edgar feels a bit more like a 1990s biopic. It crams so many events in, it sometimes feel like an “and then this happened” sort of film, rather than the more interesting thematic film under the surface.

It’s also struggling to bring more interesting depths out. It has a neat structure of Hoover dictating his biography to a string of indistinguishable “trusted” FBI agents (each scene has a different one, and there is neat visual gag as Eastwood cuts to a series of these guys in a row offering the “wrong” answer to Hoover’s question as to who was the most famous American of the 20th century – the answer being Lindbergh). Interestingly a final speech from Tolsen suggests much of what we have seen is Hoover’s vainglorious “legend building” rather than the “true story” – a theme that you feel could have been explored more.

It’s stuff like this that makes J. Edgar stand out a bit more. That and the wonderful performances from DiCaprio and Hammer, as the truly rather sweet married couple-who-weren’t. The film could make more of exploring the psychology of Hoover – the man who hated anyone different, including homosexuals – but who carried this open secret. But there isn’t time. It’s a film with good ideas and scenes, which could be more than it is. But it’s a decent film for all this. Many won’t like the fact that it takes a sympathetic angle on Hoover. But it shows every life has its right and wrongs.

The International (2009)

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts are lost in the high-pressure world of big finance in The International

Director: Tom Twyker

Cast: Clive Owen (Louis Salinger), Naomi Watts (Eleanor Whitman), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Wilhelm Wexler), Ulrich Thomsen (Jonas Skarssen), Brian F. O’Byrne (The Consultant), James Rebhorn (New York DA), Michel Voletti (Viktor Haas), Patrick Baladi (Martin White), Jay Villiers (Francis Ehames), Fabrice Scott (Nicolai Yeshinski), Haluk Bilginer (Ahmet Sunay), Luca Barbareschi (Umberto Calvini), Alessandro Fabrizi (Inspector Alberto Cerutti), Felix Solix (Detective Iggy Ornelas), Jack McGee (Detective Bernie Ward), Ben Whishaw (Rene Antall), Lucian Msamati (General Motomba)

Welcome to another of my unlikely pleasures. I remember seeing The International because we took a punt on it with an Orange Wednesday 2-for-1. I had no real expectations, but I was totally wrapped up in it. It has an old-school 1970s Hollywood-conspiracy-thriller feel. I keep waiting for it to be rediscovered (I’m waiting in vain it seems). But it’s a wonderful, tense little thriller which – by focusing on the shady, morally corrupt dealings of private banks – always seems relevant. Throw in alongside that a truly stand-out action set-piece at the centre of the film and you have a much overlooked pleasure.

Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is a scruffy Interpol agent, with a reputation for getting too involved in his cases. Working with Assistant New York DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), Salinger is investing possible illegal arms deals involving private investment bank IBBC. After their inside contact and Whitman’s fellow DA are both murdered in quick succession, Salinger takes the battle directly to IBBC. But the bank, chaired by ruthlessly blank businessman Jonas Skarsson (Ulrich Thomsen), is prepared to go to increasingly violent lengths to protect its interests, with assassinations arranged by its in-house security expert ex-Stasi agent Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and carried out by his mysterious Consultant (Brian F. O’Byrne).

Tom Twyker shoots the film in cool grays and drained out colours, giving it a very cold palette fitting for its exploration of the ruthless viciousness of big business. Twyker uses the cold, modern architecture of the various businesses the film is set in to great effect, making a wonderful, imposing backdrop. The camera constantly allows this domineering modern architecture to fill the frame, and mixes it up with some well-chosen aerial shots that reduces the action to cogs in a machine. It’s a very distinctive visual film – and it’s not until it finishes that you realise (apart from blood) you’ve really seen a red, a green or a purple in the whole film. There’s no jittery editing or hand-held camerawork – it’s got a smooth old-school cinematic quality to it.

The plot is a chilling conspiracy thriller, that (within the confines of a Hollywood action thriller) gets really in-deep into the workings of big finance. Critics accused it of being a light-weight Jason Bourne but really it’s more of a colder Parallax View. It largely eschews action in favour of paranoia, investigation and simmering tension. It’s a well-constructed journey down the rabbit hole, as Salinger gets both closer towards answers, and further away from bringing anyone to justice. 

Clive Owen’s rumpled performance is perfect. Far from being a “Bond audition”, Salinger is an outsider, a man who lives for his job, who wears his heart on his sleeve, and spends large chunks of the film either terrified or out-of-his-depth. Practically the first thing that happens to him is being knocked out by the wing-mirror of a truck. His grubby, unshaven scruffiness doesn’t recover from that. Owen gives the performance both a moral conviction and a slight air of desperation and bewilderment, as if he can’t quite understand why others aren’t as wrapped up in his case as he is.

He’s part of a great cast of actors – the film is full of unusual choices and rewarding cameos. Armin Mueller-Stahl mastered playing these world-weary ex-spies years ago, but delivers here. Broadway star Brian F O’Byrne is great, as a ruthlessly efficient hitman. Ulrich Thomsen is rather good as the blank businessman and family man, who seems to see no moral issues in the conduct of his bank’s business. Interesting actors like Patrick Baladi, James Rebhorn, Luca Barbaeschi, Haluk Bilginer and Lucian Msamati round out the cast with terrific cameos – there is always a unique actor and dynamic performance around every corner.

The plot of the film doesn’t unfold the way you expect it to – and mixes hope with a nihilistic powerlessness. Twyker’s directing is professional and he adds a lot of intelligence to a standard Hollywood set-up. He also throws in a few moments where the film pauses to reassess things we’ve seen before or to allow Salinger to puzzle out another crucial clue.

And it’s fitting for a film so in love with overwhelming power of modernist architecture that its most explosive sequence takes place in New York’s Guggenheim museum. This is a gut-wrenchingly exciting, destructive gun battle that serves as the pivot point. Brilliantly shot and edited, and perfectly built towards, it explodes into the film and grabs your attention. Owen again is perfect for this sequence – determined, but terrified and completely out of his depth – and Twyker’s use of the Guggenheim is masterful. Honestly it’s one of the best shoot-out scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie: five minutes of brilliance. You’d remember the film for that scene alone, if for nothing else.

Okay it’s not a perfect film by any stretch. Poor Naomi Watts has a thankless, ill-formed part. I’m pleased the film doesn’t include any romantic connection between the two characters at all, but (despite her work on the case) Whitman seems more a plot device than a character. The script largely fails to serve up too many memorable lines – and its main strengths are to present familiar actions and events in a fresh manner. Some have found the plot momentum to often flag – and there is something to that – and the overall schemes of the bank are not always completely clear.

But, nevertheless, I really like The International. It’s got a classic old-school feel to it. Its views on the immorality of big business feel very true, as does its presentation of the villain as basically a monolithic institution – the actual guys running the bank seem irrelevant, it’s just the ongoing nature of business. And in this world of corporations, where destroying a few men don’t admit to a hill of beans, how can truth and justice ever win out? Even if it had nothing else, tackling that idea makes The International feel like something new and worth revisiting. Well that, and that Guggenheim gun fight…

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Michael Keaton is haunted by his superhero alter-ego in Iñárritu’s well made but heavy handed theatre satire

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Michael Keaton (Riggan Thomson), Zach Galifianakis (Jake), Edward Norton (Mike Shiner), Andrea Riseborough (Laura Aulburn), Amy Ryan (Sylvia Thomson), Emma Stone (Sam Thomson), Naomi Watts (Lesley Truman), Lindsay Duncan (Tabitha Dickinson), Merritt Wever (Annie)

Oscar voters seem to be invariably drawn towards stories about actors and acting. Put together a decent and ambitious movie about those subjects, ideally with a sprinkling of gentle satire that pokes fun at acting but basically says at the end it is a noble profession, and you got yourself a contender. So it was with Birdman.

Riggan Thomson (a career revitalising role for Michael Keaton) is a faded movie star who hit celebrity 15 years ago with a series of films about a superhero, Birdman. Today he is trying to reclaim his artistic integrity by directing, adapting and starring in a Raymond Carver story on Broadway. At the same time he wants to rebuild a relationship with his daughter (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict. The film covers the stumbling journey towards the opening night, with Thomson dealing with a demanding and difficult enfant terrible co-star (Ed Norton), a string of disasters and the haunting presence of his Birdman alter-ego, lambasting his choices and urging him to return to blockbusters.

I’m going to lay into this film a bit. It’s harsh, because it is really trying to do something different, for which it deserves credit. So I’ll start with the good stuff. The conceit of making the film look like it was done in one take is extraordinarily well done – the camera work is inventive and extraordinary. Emmanuel Lubezki is a visual genius and the technical accomplishment is astounding, a real tour-de-force. The acting is also very good. Michael Keaton embraces the best script he had in years, giving the part such commitment and emotion you overlook it’s a fairly simple part. Emma Stone is raw and tragic as his daughter. Ed Norton gives one of his finest performances as a dickish method actor (a neat self-parody) who in quieter conversations reveals real depth – and provides more insights into the passion for creativity than virtually anything else in the film.

Okay, that’s the really good stuff. It’s got some good lines as well, and its general style never stops being entertaining. But it’s also nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It wants to be a profound study of the nature of life and art, but it never really gets to grips with these ideas or drills down into them. For art, its contrasts are simplistic verging on hectoring. It never really gets to the heart of what acting is or means. For life it boils down into a straightforward “father wants to win back love of family” plot. The film presents all this as something deep and meaningful, and uses a lot of style and razamatazz – but the basic points remain simple or under-explored.

Part of my problem with the film is that is wears its pseudo-intelligence rather too heavily, and it ends up turning into smugness. Lubezki’s camera work is extraordinary but it also has a “look-at-me” quality that really begins to distract from the viewing of the film – even second time around the content of the film passes you by a bit. Tellingly, on the DVD Iñárritu talks about being drawn to the project because he wanted to make a film that felt like it was done in one take. Fine, but perhaps it would have been better if he had been a bit more interested in, say, the content of the film itself? Everything about the film-making demands you give it your attention, from the camerawork to the insistent drumming soundtrack. These elements are not bad in themselves – but it’s showing off rather than craft servicing the film.

The film’s themes themselves are, I think, also not as interesting or challenging as the film-makers believe them to be. The central idea of actors being shallow with chaotic home lives is so tired as to be a cliché: “Why don’t I have any self-respect?”/”You’re an actress, honey” summarises the sort of jokes you’ve seen before in other films.

I also felt the film’s attempts to analyse the nature of art and performance were formulaic and even rather empty. Lindsay Duncan plays a chilly theatre critic, determined to destroy the play, and Keaton delivers well Riggan’s rant to her on using labels and presenting opinions as facts. There isn’t any counterbalance to this offered, no exploration of, for example, criticism can service art or how opinion guides our reception of what we perceive as good art. A heavy handed fantasy sequence has his Birdman alter ego addressing the camera directly “Look at these people, at their eyes… they’re sparkling. They love this shit.” Yeah Alejandro we get it, we are shallow and deep down prefer action films than all this “ talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit” – hardly an original thought, and hardly framed originally though, is it? Do we really need to be whacked on the head with it? What point is this trying to make that we haven’t heard hundreds of times before?

But then is it any wonder that it wants to try and make points about cinema rather than theatre? For a film set exclusively in a theatre, I don’t really feel that its makers really understand the pressures or nature of theatre. Instead, it merely stands in here as a short hand for “cultural worthiness” – Riggan might as well be making an independent film or writing a novel, theatre is just a counterpoint used for blockbuster films (a genre Iñárritu clearly does understand and has opinions on). Nothing in the film really seems to capture a real sense of backstage in a theatre or what putting on a play is like, for example Peter Yates’ film of The Dresser. There is no sense of the collaborative nature of the medium or its immediacy as a performance art – it’s labelled as lazily as a vehicle for pretension and self loathing as criticism is for bitterness and failure.

The film also plays with the notion of Riggan’s (possibly) unhinged nature. Throughout the film we see him use superpowers – levitation, telekenesis, flight, control of fire. Along with his haunting by the Birdman character (done with a nice parody of the gravelly Christian Bale-Batman voice), it all ties into the possibility that Riggan is losing the ability to keep his real life and his career’s defining moment from merging into one another. The film’s ending builds on this, playfully suggesting some of what we have seen might have been real (though it also could be interpreted as a final dream sequence) – but I’m not sure what is gained by introducing these skills other than for visual flair. Riggan’s inner turmoil is never explored fully by the film and I don’t feel the film has the patience to explore his feelings or depression. As such, I find the open-ended ending doesn’t really add anything – it feels like it has been inserted to create debate, rather than acting as a culmination for your interpretation of the film, a la Inception say.

Phew. Birdman is by no means a bad film. It is a good one, but not a great one. It has much to admire, both on a technical and performance level, but (like Riggan) it is straining for an intellectual depth and thematic richness that simply isn’t there. It’s a showpiece, a brilliantly done one, really impressive to watch and it dazzles while it takes place – but there isn’t much to talk about afterwards. It is what it is. Compared to this year’s film-about-acting, La La Land, it’s both less charming and less profound, and has less to tell us about the compromises and struggles of real life. You can enjoy it, and it needs to be seen, but I can’t see it ageing well.