Review: Far From The Madding Crowd

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DIR: Thomas Vinterberg • WRI: David Nicholls • PRO: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich • DOP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen • ED: Claire Simpson • MUS: Craig Armstrong • DES: Kave Quinn • CAST: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple

 

Undoubtedly acclaimed filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg has had a somewhat fractured relationship with directing films in the English language, his previous two attempts, It’s All About Love (2003) and Dear Wendy (2005), mercilessly panned by critics and audiences. Obviously wounded by both experiences, it has taken ten years for Vinterberg to venture near English-language films, instead carving a celebrated career in his native tongue. However, in Far From the Madding Crowd, not only does the highly eccentric Dane revisit a language that has somewhat stained his otherwise accomplished filmography but he perversely provokes himself by undertaking an adaptation of one of the most revered quintessential British novels of all time and a novel that has already been exhausted by adaptations across the board in popular culture.

 

Carey Mulligan stars as the proud and willful Bathsheba Everdene, who has vowed to retain her independence and remain unwed. She lives and works with her aunt on a small farm and appears content with her uncomplicated life. When her uncle leaves his prosperous farm to her in his will, she becomes mistress of the land, relishing in her fortune and autonomy. Owing to her beauty and spirit, Bathsheba becomes the focus of many a suitor, including the dignified and stoical Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) whom she has already refused to wed, the wealthy but demoralized William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and gambling reprobate, ex-Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). All three men determine on taming and marrying Bathsheba, challenging her to succumb to her latent desires or retain her cherished freedom, throwing her into a complete entangled state of affairs.

 

With the spate of period dramas oversaturating both film and television industries in recent years, it can be quite exhausting for sated audiences to muster up enthusiasm for yet another period drama adaptation and for a director to root out some unchartered element to inject into a formulaic genre that refuses to be tampered with. However, with an idiosyncratic, art-house cinema virtuoso at the helm, it is reasonable to expect that Vinterberg’s aberration in directing Far From the Madding Crowd could transgress and alter the conventions of the traditional period drama by bringing a distinctive avant-garde style to a staid and stubborn genre. Alas, such expectations are not met and this is owing to Vinterberg’s reluctance to challenge the conventions of a cinematic genre in the manner in which he has founded his entire career upon, which comes as a complete disappointment.

 

The screenplay adaptation does not deviate in any way from its source material; therefore those familiar with the novel should not expect any narrative rude awakenings. Such an inflexible adaptation results in a rather half-hearted screenplay that lacks the energy of its source novel, failing to arouse or thrill on any level. That screenwriter David Nicholls harbours a fear of alienating ardent period drama / Hardy enthusiasts by reformulating an over-familiar plot is evident, but what is more regrettable is, although there are flashes of Vinterberg’s skilled craftsmanship throughout the film, it ultimately remains contained within the tight strictures of the genre and becomes no better or worse than the plethora of recent period dramas; solid and dependable but utterly riskless and tired, begging the question, is the period drama genre well passed its sell by date?

 

Mulligan is competent if not slightly confined in the role of spirited Bathsheba, which is somewhat ironic given the mettlesome characteristics of her character and Mulligan’s penchant for plucky but vulnerable heroines. She appears too self-contained by the limitations of the screenplay and finds herself with nowhere to go but join up the predictable and restrictive period drama dots. Matthias Schoenaerts has not been unduly stretched since his previous detached lead role in Alan Rickman’s recent costume drama, A Little Chaos, and again appears reluctant to navigate his character beyond specific emotional boundaries, but does inject just enough pathos into Gabriel Oak to consider him a plausible suitor for the headstrong but fragile Bathsheba. Both Michael Sheen, as the repressive-turned-obsessive Boldwood, and Tom Sturridge, as the capricious soldier Troy, more than compensate for the impediments of the two leading actors, commandeering each scene they are in and striking the perfect balance between fear and self-loathing and compulsive desire and manic obsession.

 

Aside from the supporting cast, the only other significant element redeeming Far From the Madding Crowd from its otherwise sluggishness is the style of the film. As is customary with BBC period dramas, the film is a beautiful spectacle to behold. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen has masterfully created a dazzling work of art with a kaleidoscopic vision of spellbinding and hypnotic landscapes captured through a frisky and fluid cinematic lens. The production design gleams, fusing sophisticated, gentrified wealth with agricultural peasantry and penury, aesthetically rooting the audience in late 19th century England, undoubtedly spectacular but not imposing enough to salvage the film from its overall narrative shortcomings.

 

Far From the Madding Crowd will undoubtedly appeal to period drama devotees who demand film adaptations remain faithful to its classic source material. All required narrative archetypes and characteristics of the genre remain firmly in tact; spirited heroine, brooding hero, charming villain, bumbling paramour, resplendent setting and costumes, entangled plot and linear narrative that overcomes conflict and order restored. It does remain difficult, however, to reconcile this adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd with a director who championed for a more aseptic form of filmmaking twenty years ago and if Vinterberg himself cannot inject some anomalous quirk into the jaded period drama, then perhaps it is time the genre itself took a long break in a nice quiet, rural place.

 

 Dee O’Donoghue

12A (See IFCO for details)

119 minutes

Far From the Madding Crowd is released 1st May 2015

 

Far From the Madding Crowd  – Official Website

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Maleficent

Maleficent-Dream-Trailer-2014

DIR: Robert Stromberg • WRI: Linda Woolverton • PRO: Joe Roth, Scott Murray • ED: Dylan Cole, Gary Freeman • DOP. Dean Semler • DES: Chris Lebenzon, Richard Pearson • MUS: James Newton Howard • CAST: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Reilly, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville

‘Star power’ is a curious thing these days, selling more gossip magazines than movie tickets. In an era when franchises, reboots, prequels, sequels and spin-offs dominate the box office, established characters are more important than established actors in producing a hit. While Maleficent seems consistent with this trend at first, retelling the familiar story of Sleeping Beauty with the antagonistic dark fairy as protagonist, the film’s marketing tells another story. ‘Angelina Jolie is Maleficent’ scream the teaser trailers, with posters, banner pop-ups and bus panels solely focused on her name and darkly-horned, chiselled white head. Jolie, whose biggest role in recent years has been a voice in the Kung Fu Panda movies, could not make a more visible return to the big screen than as Maleficent, a larger-than-life presence with an iconic costume and an unmatched capacity for throwing shade.

Taking obvious cues from Wicked, with a nod to Snow White and the Huntsman and marching to the same beat as the phenomenal Frozen, Disney’s Maleficent capitalises on a desire for alternate perspectives on well-known stories, as well as a concurrent trend for difficult, anti-heroic protagonists whose chaotic evil ultimately restores the balance of a difficult world. The film opens with a young, spirited Maleficent ruling over an enchanted moor, the idyllic home of many a magical creature. When invading forces from a nearby kingdom threaten the harmony of her land, Maleficent’s forceful retaliation ultimately results in a devastating betrayal, triggering the chain of events familiar to audiences from Sleeping Beauty. The film recasts the evil spell cast on Princess Aurora (Fanning) as an act of revenge by Maleficent against the king (Copley), and follows the aftermath of this curse on Maleficent herself, the princess and her three fairy guardians (Staunton, Manville, Temple), and the princess’ father, King Stefan.

Maleficent is directed by Robert Stromberg, better known for his Oscar-winning work in visual effects and production design – his talents neither wasted nor unnoticed in how beautifully-rendered, shot and designed Maleficent is throughout. The world of the film, from the colourful, lively moor of Maleficent’s childhood to the grey, thorny forest after Stefan’s betrayal, is well-realised, and simpler moments like the ‘True Love’s Kiss’ are as quiet and visually simple as the battles or Maleficent’s spell-casting are over-the-top. Maleficent’s reveal at the christening, as well as her later appearance to Aurora in the forest, are glitteringly gothic and breathtakingly lovely, emphasised by Jolie’s cool performance and dangerous, velvety tones.

Jolie is pitch-perfect, in every wicked smile, agonised scream, and expression of concern, ranging from dispassionate to urgently needful. Her glowering at the adorable baby Aurora and later curt dismissal of her affection are highlights, with the growing affection she feels towards the child subtly progressed and played, even if it is loosely-motivated by the script. The film plays with her image too, with Jolie’s ground-sweeping gown inexplicably transformed into a catsuit by the time the action scenes roll around; and a curious line about how the man who loves her is willing to cast off the ring he wears just to hold her hand is interesting in the light of how she met her current beau.

Elsewhere, Elle Fanning is cheerful, bubbly and pretty, perfect for a princess, if rather vacant – the fairies wished for her to be beautiful and happy, but couldn’t they have wished for a personality, too? Speaking of the fairies, even if all three were combined into one fairy character, she’d still have little to do, but Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville and Juno Temple  regardless do their best to be funny and charming. Sam Reilly as Maleficent’s shape-shifting minion, Dioval, is quietly impressive, while Sharlto Copley as Stefan (with, for some reason, a Scottish accent replacing his native South African tones) makes for an enjoyable villain. Not quite as deranged as his last bad-guy role in Elysium, Copley’s paranoia and blinkered bloodlust is convincing, if never very well-developed.

Credited to Linda Woolverton, with ten ‘based on’ credits from other sources, the greatest issue is the rather weak script. An inconsistency within the tone, structure, even the language used suggests either a great deal of revision or poor attention to detail.  Many threads feel unfinished or disorganised – the third fairy never grants Aurora a wish (no excuse for that lack of personality I joked about above); The fairies are sometimes interchangeably referred to as ‘pixies;’ and the motivation behind several key moments appears to serve the visuals rather than the plot. Most bafflingly, the final battle between Maleficent, Dioval and the King’s men takes place at an utterly needless time, when what they are fighting for is no longer really an issue, except the film needs an impressive climactic set-piece, and nobody pays to see peace in 3D.

Rather like Frozen, the ending of Maleficent contains a welcome, well-intentioned appeal to female solidarity and sorority, which is just grounded enough in the world of the film to succeed where other plot points fail to take hold. Even if the structure and focus of this film and its characters are easily confused or sacrificed to the visual splendour of its production, its premise and performances are strong, the lead performance particularly transcendental: Jolie really is magnificent as the malevolent Maleficent.

Stacy Grouden

PG (See IFCO for details)
97 mins

Maleficent is released on 28th May 2014

Maleficent – Official Website

 

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Cinema Review: Lovelace

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DIR: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman • WRI: Andy Bellin • PRO: Heidi Jo Markel, Laura Rister, Jason Weinberg, Jim Young • DOP: Eric Alan Edwards • ED: Robert Dalva, Matt Landon • DES: William Arnold • CAST: Amanda Seyfried, James Franco, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple

Lovelace tells the life story of the star of porn’s most successful theatrical release, Deep Throat. That film reportedly earned more than $600 million, while its lead, Linda Lovelace, earned a paltry $1,250.  Lovelace focuses on her relationship with tyrannical husband/manager Chuck Traynor, exposing the sinister side of the sex film industry.

Lovelace traces Linda’s development from naive, almost priggish young girl, through her brief stint as the porn industry’s megastar, to her decision to confess what it was really like. “Ordeal” was the name of her book, and her experiences are unpleasant. The film progresses first as a success story, hinting at something sinister, before going back and revealing unhappy going-ons behind the scenes.

The film notes that Lovelace’s appearance contrasts with the image expected in porn. She’s not the big-breasted blonde with a small waist. Her freckles receive much attention. Amanda Seyfried conveys Linda’s naivety and initial discomfort with her body. The film’s highlight perhaps comes in her scenes with Wes Bentley. Bentley plays a photographer, taking snapshots for the movie’s publicity posters. He encourages Linda to talk, and Seyfried shines in an emotional moment when she realises her own beauty.  (One notes that Wes Bentley played the character in American Beauty who found so much beauty in the world that he couldn’t take it, an incidental intertextual pleasure.)

Seyfried also excels in her scenes with Peter Sarsgaard, excellent as Chuck Traynor. In the film’s early scenes, he imbues Chuck with an unnerving carnality as he glares and flirts with Linda. His presence is overbearing from that start, so that Chuck’s later anger and violence are not all that surprising.

Supporting cast includes enjoyable, if slight, turns by Hank Azaria as Gerry Damiano, Deep Throat‘s director, and Chris Noth (Mr Big in Sex and the City), as Anthony Romano, the film’s financier. Sharon Stone is effective as Linda’s mother.  Chloë Sevigny (The Brown Bunny, more intertextuality) appears as feminist journalist, questioning Lovelace about how it feels to be “the poster girl for the sexual revolution”

Lovelace’s story has become a touchstone in debates concerning pornography. The narrative in Deep Throat addresses the problem that critics identify pornography as attempting to resolve: how to render visually female sexual pleasure. Linda’s character in that massively successful film, nowadays little seen, presents an independent woman seeking to satisfy her own sexual needs.  Her search takes her outside the confines of patriarchal marriage. It locates female sexual pleasure in the clitoris, which, for Linda in Deep Throat, is at the base of her throat. So, Deep Throat became celebrated because it was a “porno with a story”, and the story presented the sexual freedom of a woman in the era of sexual revolution.

The behind-the-scenes story reveals the coercion involved in the industry. It exposes whatever pleasure is to be derived from pornography as purely male. In one scene, Harry Reems (Adam Brody) climaxes too quickly when filming Linda’s first sex scene. The crew watching the scene being performed are entirely male and clearly enjoy watching Linda fellate Harry. The same scene later becomes more chilling with the tyrannical presence of Chuck, watching and making sure that Linda takes part and does what she’s told.

Andy Bellin’s script also characterises the traditional family as coercive and problematic for women.  When Linda turns to her mother for respite from Chuck’s beatings, her mother insists that she should “be a good wife, listen to him and obey him”. Linda endures further threats, violence and misery as a result of doing what’s expected of her.  It’s ironic then that Linda finds happiness as a mother and a wife, ultimately presenting a conservative message:  women should stick to their traditional roles. Of course, Chuck is not a role model husband, pimping his wife and expecting her to perform in porn films.

James Franco appears on the film’s fringes, playing Hugh Hefner. He recently worked with Travis Mathews on Interior. Leather Bar, a film that challenges the workings and apparent realism of pornography in a more cinematically sophisticated manner. Lovelace is itself in some ways pornographic. In a home movie clip, Seyfried’s Lovelace drops her denim shorts, to reveal her bottom in a teasing, sexual manner, whereas, in a similar clip, Sarsgaard’s Chuck “moons” playfully.  Male nudity is a joke; female nudity is charged with desire. In another scene, feeling uncomfortable with her appearance, Linda’s hair hides her breasts and she covers her midriff with her arms, while the men in her life, workers in the sex industry, encourage her to reveal. The film then exposes Seyfried’s breasts in a pornographic fashion, indulging in some of the pleasures that pornography promises.

Critics believe pornography is not art because it intends to arouse; it’s affective pleasures are sensations.  An appeal to rational or critical thinking makes something artistic. The appeal of Lovelace to the emotions, in its simplistic characterisation of Chuck Traynor as Svengali, becomes pornographic, in this sense, when Anthony Romano oversees Chuck’s beating, at which stage viewers will probably take delight in seeing this exploitative man getting what he deserves.

The production design, given its modest $10 million budget, is excellent, with groovy ’70s costumes.  Gladys Knight sings “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” over the opening sequence, in which we cut from the light in a theatrical projection room to a shot of the sun shining through Linda’s car window. The use of classics ’70s tracks, such as Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby”, give the film an uplifting feel that begins to seem out of place, as the horror of Linda’s story becomes apparent.

Epstein and Friedman, the film’s directors, have made excellent documentaries, including The Celluloid Closet, about homosexuality in the movies, and the Oscar-winning Common Threads Stories from the Quilt, the subject of which is the AIDS memorial quilt. Epstein also won an Oscar for The Times of Harvey MilkParagraph 175 told the story of persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany. Epstein and Friedman recently moved into fictional treatments of real people. Howl (2010) starred James Franco as Allen Ginsberg.

Inside Deep Throat was a well-received documentary that features interviews with the real Linda Lovelace, who died from injuries sustained in a car crash in 2002. It perhaps explains why Epstein and Friedman resort to a fictional telling of an important story, but the complexity of the debates that Deep Throat and Lovelace’s story provoke is lost in their simplistic film that’s made enjoyable by good performances and incidental pleasures.

John Moran

Rated 18 (see IFCO website for details) 

92 mins
Lovelace is released on 23rd August 2013

Lovelace – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Killer Joe

Hey Joe

 

DIR: William Friedkin • WRI: Tracy Letts • PRO: Nicolas Chartier, Scott Einbinder • DOP: Caleb Deschanel • ED: Darrin Navarro • DES: Franco-Giacomo Carbone • Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple

Director William Friedkin delivered two of the best movies of the 70s, if not of all time, with The French Connection and The Exorcist. Since then he’s never hit the same dizzy heights, with his most recent big outing being the 2003 flop The Hunted. Now, after almost a decade of semi-retirement, he’s returned guns-blazing with a shocking and twisted adaption of Tracy Lett’s award-winning play.

Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) has found himself in trouble with some local drug dealers/debt collectors, and so sets up a plan with his father (Thomas Haden Church) and step-mother (Gina Gershon) to off his birth mother, and cash in on her life insurance. For this, they hire Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a local policeman/hitman, but since they don’t have the money to pay him up front, Joe takes Chris’s innocent little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer until the deed is done.

Set in a sweltering Texas, Friedkin shoots the southern state as if it was post-apocalyptic, all tattered trailer parks, shut down pool halls and abandoned amusement parks. All of the actors bring their A-Game (except for sore thumb Hirsch), and every scene, every sentence and every silence is filled with the threat of sex or violence, and usually both at once. This movie is absolutely not for everybody, with both the sex and the violence taken up to levels not usually seen in a mainstream movie. But despite all this heaviness, Killer Joe is best described as a very, VERY dark comedy, and there is a lot of subversive glee to be had watching these disgusting people getting their comeuppance.

A fantastic return to form for Friedkin, and also a warning shot from McConaughey, who between his brilliant turn in this, and upcoming titles like the Palme d’Or nominated Mud and The Paperboy, as well as Magic Mike, is marking 2012 as HIS year.

Rory Cashin

Rated 18 (see IFCO website for details)
102m 13s

Killer Joe is released on 29th June 2012

Killer Joe – Official Website

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Cracks

Cracks

DIR: Jordan Scott • WRI: Caroline Ip, Ben Court • PRO: Kwesi Dickson, Andrew Lowe, Julie Payne, Rosalie Swedlin, Christine Vachon • DOP: John Mathieson • ED: Valerio Bonelli • DES: Ben Scott • CAST: Eva Green, Juno Temple, María Valverde

Cracks is one of those films that has infinite potential to disappoint. A slightly less lurid tone or slightly more hammy performances and this would have been not only a dull film, but also a disastrously over-the-top film. Thankfully, the tone is perfect, the casting spot-on and the story is gloriously dark.

Set in 1930s Britain in an all-girls boarding school, Cracks examines the relationship between the girls on the school’s diving team and their mentor, the glamorous and beautiful Ms G. (Eva Green). The ‘leader’ of these girls is Di Radfield (Juno Temple), as charismatic as she is cruel. She is the most popular girl in school and also shares a special intimacy with Ms. G. When the arrival of new girl, Fiamma, an aristocrat from Spain, is announced, all hell breaks loose and the relationships suddenly become very complex indeed.

It is difficult to categorise this film. It examines the lives of teenagers and the social constructs in their world but the themes are so adult that it would never be categorised as a ‘teen movie’. I suppose it would be most like a coming of age drama, though not like any I have ever seen. Similar in tone to Peter Weir’s haunting Picnic at Hanging Rock, this is a film of many layers. It examines the hierarchy of the social structure and the unsteady line between being hated and being admired. As Fiamma begins to show her personality and all it has to offer, it is interesting to see how the girls flip-flop between loving her and hating her.

As well as a coming of age story, this is also a very interesting look at mental health problems. Eva Green’s Ms. G is breathtakingly confident and beautiful and full of exciting stories of her adventures abroad. However, as the story darkens, the extent of her emotional problems becomes clear and suddenly her inappropriate relationship with her students becomes all the more creepy.

Turning in a tremendous performance as Di, Juno Temple cements her status, in my eyes at least, as one of the best emerging actresses of the moment. I’ve been keeping an eye on this young star since her spectacular turn in Joe Wright’s Atonement and she has not disappointed. Here, she has the film all to herself and she turns in a truly magnificent performance. The same can be said for Eva Green. Who could resist the role of Ms. G? It is so dark and multi-layered, it would be a joy for any actress. Few, however, could pull it off with the grace and texture that Green brings to it.

I highly recommend this film. Admirably unafraid to delve into some seriously dark territory, this film may disturb some people. However, it is a fantastic piece of cinema and a study of isolation that stayed with me long after I left the cinema.

Charlene Lydon
(See biog here)

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Cracks
release date Dec 2009

Cracks – IMDb Page

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