Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher – Based on The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter etc.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Bill Condon is an interesting filmmaker. His movie choices oscillate between big budget Hollywood productions such as Beauty and the Beast (2017) and mid-budget, character-led productions like Mr Holmes (2015) and his latest film The Good Liar (2019). This is, by my reckoning, his fourth collaboration with the living legend that is Ian McKellen and casting him alongside Helen Mirren is a masterstroke. In this story we get a whole different kind of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ narrative.
McKellen portrays charismatic septuagenarian, Roy Courtnay. He meets Helen Mirren’s widow, Betty McLeish, and they begin a friendly courtship. As the romance blossoms, her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey), begins to suspect Roy is after more than companionship. I won’t spoil the twisting plot, but safe to say the story develops in a compelling fashion. Indeed, I love a good con-artist thriller and McKellen and Mirren’s chemistry on-screen was particularly impressive.
Overall, there’s much to enjoy about The Good Liar (2019). I love it when London is used as a main location, as I will see places I know and have been to. I have to say that the twists in the story, particularly one second act reveal are very well handled too. By the end you could see where the story was going, but not the why and how. My only gripes were some of the banking machinations were a tad sloppy and the final reveal did not necessarily connect all the dots successfully. Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable thriller with an excellent cast and solid direction. It does not have the scintillating scripts con-artist films such as The Sting (1973) and Nine Queens (2000) do, but not many do.
Having briefly explored what makes up film character personas in this article here, I thought it would be fun to start a new feature which looks at memorable film characters. So, with Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) in the cinema, I wanted to look at one of the greatest character narrative arcs ever in my opinion. When I say character arc, I am talking of the transformation of a character throughout a film or films. Because for me, the arc of Sarah Connor is absolutely brilliant.
I haven’t seen Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), as for me, the Terminator franchise is a spent force narratively speaking. I’m sure it’s a great spectacle, but I am more interested in speaking about James Cameron’s first two genre masterpieces. I am specifically intrigued by Sarah Connor movement from timid waitress to hardcore rebel fighter. Thus, Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke’s turns as the character are ignored here.
The genius of James Cameron’s original filmThe Terminator (1984) is how it is both simple and complex at the same time. It takes time travel tropes, which while very familiar today, were extremely fresh and exciting back in the 1980s. Mashing up ideas from literary science fiction, Star Trek , The Twilight Zoneand films likeWestworld (1973), Cameron gave us one of the greatest bad guys and heroines ever committed to film. Plus, he did it all on a $7 million budget!!
At the heart of the sci-fi, war and thriller genres is an intriguing character study and even a love story. The Terminator (1984) introduces Sarah Connor as a waitress who is having a bad day. It’s about to get worse. She has been murdered and it’s on TV. Well, it’s not her, but someone with the same name as her. Very quickly she is confronted by a man from the future, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), claiming she is the mother of the person who will be a future saviour. How do you process THAT?!? Mind blown!!
Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor then find themselves pursued by a futuristic cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger), hell bent on her destruction. Here she learns more and more about the future and how machines will take control, but her son, John, will lead the resistance. Thus, over the course of the film, as Sarah learns about her fate, the audience learns too. Sarah begins as a conduit and passive, before transforming slowly into an aggressive and battle-hardened fighter.
When the events of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), come around we meet a whole different kind of Sarah Connor. She has transformed into a muscular and angry revolutionary. Not surprisingly, her narratives about future robots and the apocalypse find her sectioned. But, we know she is telling the truth. Moreover, due to her toughness, guile and resourcefulness, she is now very capable. No four walls will hold Sarah Connor.
Finally, Linda Hamilton’s performance must be praised too. In the first film she is a small character, quiet, likeable and lacking confidence. Over the course of the two films her physical, mental and emotional transformation is very impressively rendered. Cameron’s writing and Hamilton’s commitment to the role make Sarah Connor a highly memorable film character for me.
Written by: Sergio Casci, Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Produced by: Simon Oakes, Aliza James, Aaron Ryder
Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Alicia Silverstone, Richard Armitage
Music by: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
******* SPOILER FREE *******
If you haven’t seen the Austrian horror filmGoodnight Mommy (2014), then I urge you to do so. It is genuinely one of the most startling and creepy films of recent years. It psychologically gets under the skin with the story of a mother and her two children, isolated, as she recovers from reconstructive surgery. The directors, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, proved themselves adept at creating memorable imagery, tense dread and a shocking ending up there with the horror classics.
With their latest film The Lodge (2019), they have once again ventured into the horror genre. Working with a fascinating screenplay from Silvio Casci, the film is full of intriguing themes relating to religious cults, grief, isolation, post-traumatic stress and family dysfunction. However, despite stellar work from the cast and compelling direction, the film never quite filled me with fear, nor shocked me enough to satisfy my horror needs. It works well as a slow turning of the screw type story, but at times it was too slow for me.
In essence the narrative is similar to Goodnight Mommy (2019); two kids and a maternal character are trapped together in one location and things get weird. Richard Armitage portrays Richard, a father to Aidan (Jaden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), who is desperate for them to connect with his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough). To precipitate this they spend Christmas at their remote holiday lodge, as you do. When Richard is called back to the city for work, Grace and the kids’ relationship begins to get cold. Thus, amidst the isolation and snowy landscape, a frozen atmosphere exists inside and outside the cabin.
Overall, the film is worth watching for Riley Keough’s committed performance as Grace; a victim of childhood trauma trying to be part of a caring family. Her character is striving for sanity, however, she gets something else altogether. The directors also do sterling work and create a compelling image system, notably around dolls, snow and religious iconography. The lodge itself is rendered creepy with sharp angles, overhead shots, skin-crawling music and darkness all used to sinister effect. But, despite the quality of the production, the central premise, slow pace and confusing plot developments drained any fear I felt by the end. Nonetheless, fans of The Shining (1980), The Thing (1982) and any number of cabin-in-the woods-horror films will find something to chill them here.
Produced by: Rodrigo Texeira, Jay Van Hoy, Lourenco Sant Anna, Robert Eggers, Youree Henley
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
******* SPOILER FREE ********
Robert Eggers debut feature, The Witch (2015), was a startling debut and deserved the critical acclaim it received. Alas, personally, it left me cold as a story, because I felt little empathy for the characters. By the end, I was totally disconnected from the madness that ensued. Yet, while it failed as a horror film, it did have great performances from the cast and an incredible eye for period detail and language.
Obviously, a talented filmmaker such as Eggers is not going to care what I think; and quite right he is too. Building on the folklore and legends of yesteryear established in The Witch (2015), he has once again delivered a highly ambitious cinematic work on a relatively low budget with The Lighthouse (2019). Indeed, with a superbly researched screenplay full of salty dialogue, authentic locations and insane visuals, I connected way more to this than his debut film.
Shot on black-and-white 35mm with a 1: 19 aspect ratio, Eggers has left us in no doubt his intention to aim for the cinema for the purists among you. Formally though, these creative choices also force the audience into the same claustrophobic, black-hearted watery hell our characters must endure. Moreover, Eggers takes joy in oppressing his characters and the audience. TheLighthouse (2019) is a brilliant but harsh to watch. I mean I felt like I’d been working on a bloody lighthouse myself, such was my mental exhaustion by the end.
The film benefits from two incredible acting performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Dafoe represents the experienced sea-dog, with Pattinson as the younger and more secretive, Winslow, The two men drink, eat, work, spar, clash, fart, shout, drink some more and slowly but surely begin to unravel amidst the isolation of the unforgiving rocks, crashing waves and squawking gulls. Full of incredible imagery, devilish sounds and creeping dread, ultimately, TheLighthouse (2019) is a hard film to endure, but an even harder one to forget.
Directed by: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett
Produced by: Tripp Vinson, James Vanderbilt, Willem Sherak, Bradley J. Fischer
Written by: Guy Busick, R. Christopher Murphy
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie Macdowell etc.
Music by: Brian Tyler
Cinematography: Brett Jutkiewicz
******* MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ********
I hadn’t heard too much buzz about this reasonably low-budget fun cat-and-mouse-horror B-movie, but the poster really grabbed me. Thus, as I have an Odeon Limitless Card, I thought why not take a chance. I’m glad I did too becauseReady or Not (2019) is a highly efficient, violent, funny and pacy horror film.
After a quick flashback, which foregrounds the gore to come, we are introduced to soon-to-be-wed Alex (Mark O’Brien) and Grace (Samara Weaving). They are to be married amidst the opulent surroundings of the Le Domas family home. The huge commanding property and the gigantic grounds establish we are in the playground of the wealthy and these rich kids play rough.
After an uneventful wedding ceremony the fun really begins. Well, I say fun, because essentially it’s a game of “Hide and Seek” meets Hard Target (1993) meets Saw (2004) meets Get Out (2017). The similarity to Jordan Peele’s classic horror is loose, however, there is an element of social satire with the millionaire family hunting down a person of perceived lower social standing.
But the Le Domas family, headed by Henry Czerny and Andie MacDowell, are about to meet their match in Grace. Raised in foster homes she is a fighter and imbued with terrific energy by star-in-the-making Samara Weaving. Moreover, Grace, like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, raises her game and battles back. As the body count rises and the blood spills across the screen, Grace’s wedding dress becomes a symbol of carnage, as opposed to love.
Ready or Not (2019) is an unpretentious ninety-minute movie gem. It’s not the most original work I will watch all year, but it had me very entertained with some great tension and blood-curdling deaths. The theme of the rich sacrificing the underclasses for continued existence could have been developed further, but why let it get in the way of a bloody good game of hide and seek.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – FILM REVIEW
Directed and Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Produced by: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Al Pacino, Mike Moh, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Damien Lewis, Kurt Russell and many, many more.
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
From watching the trailers for Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), I remember thinking: this looks so cool and I’m glad they haven’t given away much of the story here. Because, I hate those darned trailers which give away the story!
So, you watch Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film and then you realise, after the excessive running time, THERE ISN’T REALLY ANY STORY as such! Okay, DiCaprio’s character suffers an existential career crisis but that’s kind of it. Instead, you get mostly a nigh-on three-hour historical and cultural nostalgia trip down memory lane filtered through the artistic and fetishistic vision of one of cinemas great filmmaking iconoclasts.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), is essentially an arthouse character study where you get to hang out with two-and-a-half lead protagonists, plus a whole army of fictional and ‘real’ life supporting characters from the 1969 Hollywood era. Our two main “heroes” are neurotic, alcoholic B-movie actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and tough, handsome and laconic, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The two characters contrast and complement each other perfectly. Moreover, the star quality, chemistry and fine performances of the lead actors bind the movie together amazingly.
Brad Pitt is especially brilliant. His character is not, until the violent ending, given much to do story wise; however, he does it with such charm. He imbues a character who has accepted his place in the world with such easy-going humour and control, it is an absolute joy to watch. It’s an iceberg performance which seems shallow on the surface, but has hidden and unsaid depth. I really wanted to know more about his character, especially what appeared to be a very colourful backstory.
DiCaprio, on the other hand, has the showier performance. Edgy, hungover and insecure due to his characters’ fading Hollywood career, DiCaprio gives another fantastic movie performance. He commits to the Dalton character and features in some wonderful sketches which pay homage and parody B-movies, TV variety shows and old TV Westerns. What I loved was his ability to demonstrate different levels of acting skills. DiCaprio can fuck up Dalton’s acting on set one moment, but then deliver acting on a Shakespearean level the next.
Margot Robbie, who we know is a brilliant actor in her own right, alas, is not afforded the same level of care in regard to the characterisation of Sharon Tate. More of an ornamental character in the film, she looks great going to the cinema, packing a suitcase, driving and generally just being effervescent. Yet, it’s truly is one of the film’s major flaws that it doesn’t make more of Robbie’s acting talent. Even the fantastic ending, which Tarantino, takes incredible liberties with in regard to actual events, finds Tate’s character development unfortunately left bereft of emotion.
Similarly, the Hollywood cameos echoing throughout the films are pure style over substance. For example Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski and Bruce Lee feature but these are mostly inconsequential encounters. The Bruce Lee representation and scene is actually really funny as Cliff Booth and the martial arts star face off in a hilarious flashback. Typically, Tarantino has caused controversy with his Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) rendition. Personally, I respect that people may be offended, however, it’s more comedic and iconoclastic rather than overt racism. After all, this is a fairy-tale vision of Hollywood and not a documentary. Plus, Tarantino knows he’s going to piss people off so it’s obvious he’s playing with people here.
While Bruce Lee’s persona is playfully satirized or racist depending on your point-of-view, Tarantino’s representation of the Manson family is more damning. It’s clear he absolutely hates hippies, especially acid-looped killer hippies. Dalton and Booth represent the old-school, honest Hollywood working class, so are the antithesis of the drop-out youths. The culture clashes between this era and the new flower-power cults is something Tarantino explores. Charles Manson, who barely features, is a ghost-like figure though. Instead, it is the character of Tex (Austin Butler) and the females of the commune who are most prominent.
Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is especially hypnotic in her role. Exuding both sexuality and acid-drenched nihilism, Pussycat is a siren hitcher, luring drivers to symbolically crash against the cliffs. For me, Tarantino should have made way more of the old and new California culture clash themes, as they resonated powerfully when on screen. Plus, the scenes on the commune were actually quite creepy, so more should have been made of this threat from a dramatic perspective. Lastly, the irreverent and violent final act carnage exploits the clashing of these two different cultures, but more could have done throughout to enhance this dynamic.
Overall, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) is a near three-hour arthouse classic. If you like films about film and TV making, driving, feet, ensemble casts, films within films, cinema-going, Los Angeles, more feet; and hanging with the marvellous DiCaprio and Pitt in a 1969 setting, then you will love this beautifully rendered and lovingly crafted film about Hollywood. Otherwise, you will probably find it a boring, indulgent and style-over-substance folly. Either way you have to admire Tarantino’s exquisitely controlled writing and direction. He certainly does!!
Safe to say though Tarantino will not care either way, because most of his filmic output has made a lot of money at the box office. This has now allowed him the luxury, like that of true cinema artists such as Kubrick, Altman and Antonioni, to make whatever films a studio is prepared to give him the money for. He’s basically making films for himself and doesn’t care if the audience likes it or not.
I personally found myself magnetically drawn to Tarantino’s vision and from a purely filmmaking and artistic perspective I was totally immersed throughout. Having said that, if the incessant driving and shots of dirty feet were cut and Dalton and Booth had been given a proper plot, rather than the thin stranded narrative within the impressive gallery of cameos and set-pieces, I would definitely expect to be writing about one of the best films ever made.
Way back in September 2015 I wrote an article listing some great ensemble film casts. Please feel free to read it here at this link.
If you can’t be bothered to read it the list of films are as follows:
12 ANGRY MEN (1957) AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (2012) GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014) INCEPTION (2010) LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997) THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) MAGNOLIA (1999) MEANTIME (1984) THE OUTSIDERS (1983) PULP FICTION (1994) SHORT CUTS (1993) TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (2011)
Never one to worry about originality, I have decided to follow up this article with another list of great ensemble film casts.
The challenge second time round though is to EXCLUDE the films of directors or franchises ALREADY LISTED.
For those who may have lazy-read this I WILL REPEAT!!!
NO DIRECTOR’S OR FRANCHISE WORK FROM LIST ONE WILL BE ON LIST TWO!!!
It would be so easy to include all of Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino’s or the Marvel films. So I am not going to do that. Anyway, here are another TEN films with great ensemble casts (in alphabetical order).