(On TV, June 2017) I’m not always a good audience for romantic historical dramas, so when I say that my patience was tested by Far From the Madding Crowd, you can take it as you will. Getting down in the muck of a Victorian-England farm, this is an adaptation from an 1874 novel and it often feels like it in-between the intense melodrama, unglamorous content (i.e.; Juno Temple looking this close to death in every scene), mud, focus on farm life and merciless fate of some characters. It can be a slog, especially at the glacial pace events unfold thanks to director Thomas Vinterberg. But while I’m not enthusiastic about the results, at least the film can boast of a few assets. Carey Mulligan, never my favourite actress, holds her own here as a headstrong farm owner, while Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen act as foils at their ends of the romantic trapezoid. The cinematography is fine (albeit held back by an intention to keep the setting as realistic as possible) and the film does unspool better as background noise rather than something worth holding undivided interest. In a field dominated by Jane Austen adaptations, however, Far From the Madding Crowd feels a bit dull in comparison. But then again I’m not the target audience for such films.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) It doesn’t reflect well on me, but I’ve long believed that Carey Mulligan is one of the most profoundly uninteresting thespian working at the moment. I don’t find her likable, attractive or impressive—most of her roles could have been played just as well by other actresses, and she doesn’t seem to have any innate distinction to her on-screen persona. But here comes An Education to make me question that long-held loathing: Mulligan is the clear protagonist of the movie, and she more than manages to be interesting, likable, attractive (a flattering haircut helps) and impressive as a young woman undergoing real-life schooling in 1960s England. Going from grade-A student to dropout under the influence of a conman, Mulligan portrays the withering innocence and mounting maturity of her character, and hold her own against capable actors such as Peter Sarsgaard (as the charming antagonist) and Alfred Molina (as a father who cares a lot). It’s not a complicated story, nor much of an original one, but it works well at what it tries to do, and ends up considerably more captivating than it looks on paper. An Education is a small surprise, not the least of them being Mulligan’s unexpectedly compelling performance.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) My current life circumstances mean that I usually see movies 6-9 months after their theatrical release. In order to “stay current” and understand much of the ongoing conversation regarding movies, I often spoil myself silly on movies I haven’t seen but eventually will. This usually works pretty well and doesn’t ruin movies as much as you’d think. But there are exceptions and Inside Llewyn Davis shows the limits of the spoil-yourself-rotten approach in tackling plot-light interpretation-heavy movies. Having read many descriptions of what made Inside Llewyn Davis so interesting a while ago, I now find that most of the theories about the film are more substantial than the film itself. A ramble through 1961 Greenwich Village before the folk-music explosion, Inside Llewyn Davis is about a talented but prickly musician who may be at the end of his moribund career. The film follows him during an eventful week, but don’t expect much in terms of plotting or conclusion: As with many of their previous movies, the Coen Brothers don’t settle for neat dramatic arcs, fully-tied subplots or self-contained screen characters: they hint, leave plenty to the imagination, play with chronology and cut to the credits five minutes before other directors would. It’s maddening and yet in my encroaching old age, I don’t find it as frustrating as I would have years ago. (But then again, if you follow the Coen Brothers you’ve already seen No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man) The music is great if you like folk (I don’t, but the artistry is remarkable and then there’s “Please Please Mr. Kennedy” to amuse us uncouth barbarians.), and as a look at a specific time and place, it’s fascinating in its own right. The cinematography is remarkable, as this is a cold winter movie and there’s no visual comfort for anyone here. Oscar Isaac is fascinating as the titular protagonist while Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan have short but striking roles. While I like individual elements, themes and sequences of Inside Llewyn Davis, I’m not sure I like it as much as the idealized version I had made up in my head while reading the chatter surrounding the film. You can probably figure out that this is a problem with me rather than the film itself.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) As a certified Moulin Rouge fan, I had been waiting a while for Baz Luhrmann to return to the same overblown wide-screen film style. Fortunately, the wait is over: The first half of his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is crammed with visual excess, lush 3D cinematography, frantic energy and flashy camera work. As a way to portray the excesses of the Roaring Twenties (along with a not-so-anachronistic hip-hop soundtrack), it works splendidly and I can see myself gleefully revisiting that part of the film before long. The film reaches an apex of sorts as it magnificently introduces the titular Gatsby (a perfectly-cast Leonardo DiCaprio) with fireworks and a wink. Toby Maguire makes for a good everyday-man audience stand-in through this madness and the film eventually calms down during its increasingly somber second half as the true themes of the story play out and reach their tragic conclusion. Luhrmann is the real star of The Great Gatsby, but the actors he brings on board all have their chance to shine. I’m not a fan of Casey Mulligan, but she couldn’t have been better that she is here as a flapper; Joel Edgerton also does well as he goes toe-to-toe with DiCaprio. As an adaptation, the film faithfully keeps the plot, overplays the symbolism, dispenses with a few subtleties, adds a framing device that’s not entirely useless and provides enough of a thematic slant on the material to keep fans of the book arguing in depth about intended meaning. On a surface level, The Great Gatsby is well worth-watching for its visual sheen (especially its first 30 minutes): this is an indulgent, no-budget-limits style of filmmaking that I enjoy tremendously, and as a way to present a classic curriculum novel, it’s invigorating.
(In theaters, October 2010) Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is generally acknowledged as a Science Fiction novel coming from outside the SF genre, and as such pays more attention to fine prose, character development and inner monologue than SF devices, coherent word-building or narrative excitement. As an adaptation, Never Let Me Go feels a lot like that, with a thin plot, leisurely pacing and constant focus on the three lead actors. (Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and -to a lesser extent- Keira Knightley all do well with their roles.) The muted colors of the cinematography reflect the restraint with which the characters react to their fated lives, and the lack of urgency in the telling of the story is designed to let everyone reflect at lengths about the situation. It’s one of those rare (and largely mythical) SF movies without obvious special effects, and as such should earn a bit of respect from the genre-reading crowd. On the other hand, that genre-reading crowd will be more likely to recommend the film to others as accessible-level SF than to appreciate the film for themselves, given how it vaguely sketches the alternate-reality of the story’s universe, and features largely passive characters whose role is to stare into the face of inevitability. There is, however, something very interesting in the film’s emphasis on sub-culture mythology, with a series of ill-informed rumours (all of them knocked down one after another) forming a good chunk of the characters’ inner landscape due to the absence of more reliable information. (The final revelation perfectly fits into this motif.) Does the world of the film hold together? Absolutely not, but it doesn’t even try to address plausibility, betting instead on the real emotional core of the trio at the middle of the film. Never Let Me Go will be a bit too slow and thin for some, but it’s a success in the same way that Atonement and other middle-brow character dramas can be. Don’t let the “Science Fiction” label create false expectations…
(In theaters, September 2010) As someone who’s on record as writing that the original Wall Street was “the definitive film of the eighties”, it goes without saying that I had been dreading the idea of a sequel: why mess with quasi-perfection? As seductive as the idea was to revisit those characters in the context of another financial meltdown, there’s no need to say that the idea of a sequel was entirely useless. After seeing the film, I still feel the same way: While director Oliver Stone’s film (he didn’t write it, curiously enough) is a lucid treatment of the 2008 financial crisis and has some interesting things to say about the shared hallucination that are today’s financial markets, it merely plays on the existing Wall Street brand and quickly becomes bogged down in a superfluous romantic drama featuring perhaps the blandest young couple in contemporary cinema. (Shia LaBeouf’s continued acclaim remains a mystery to me given his lack of on-screen personality, but he’s a charismatic powerhouse compared to Carey Mulligan.) With serial numbers filed off, Wall Street 2 is a lucid high-stakes drama skillfully dramatizing a difficult subject… but as a sequel, it lacks some oomph and magic. Still, occasionally, it shines a bit brighter than usual. One fascinating facet of the film’s direction is the blatant use of infographics to illustrate what the characters are saying, reflecting the way our world has become far more abstract since 1987, to a point that we even think in information being presented as computer graphics. While Gekko’s character has been considerably softened (a good creative choice, given the character’s age and his prison experience), Michael Douglas’ august performance still makes him one of the film’s chief attraction –to say nothing of a delightful cameo from another character in the Wall Street universe. What may be missing from the film, however, is the kind of dripping popular outrage that keen observers of the recent meltdown have felt at the way corruption, sociopathy, greed and sheer criminal behaviour are endemic in the financial sector. Wall Street 2 never gets angry the way the original did, and seems content to play with money as long as the right people get some. But wouldn’t that, in itself, be the most damning indictment of our times as seen from 1987?