Meewella | Critic

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Tag: Willem Dafoe

QuickView: Poor Things (2023)

“I found nothing but sugar and violence.”

Bella Baxter

Where The Favourite lulled viewers into a false sense of security before indulging in Yorgos Lanthimos’ sly humour, Poor Things is open with its weirdness from the start. Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel, Poor Things is at its core a film about a young woman’s discovery of herself and the world, told through a kind of steampunk historic fable with a visual style reminiscent of Terry Gilliam. The opening chapter is steeped in gothic imagery, a scarred Willem Dafoe embodying both Dr Frankenstein and his monster, literally playing God as he shortens his name, Godwin. Lanthimos reunites with Emma Stone as Godwin’s creation, Bella, who begins undeveloped despite her adult body, toddling and prone to tantrums, the puffy shoulders of her costumes creating an unstable, top-heavy silhouette like the strange chimeric animals that fill the lavish house. I opted to see a rare 35mm film screening which faithfully recreated the cinematography choices, like lenses that provided distortion and mismatched sizing to heighten vignetting, replicating the effect of early cameras. Colour arrives as Bella sets off to travel Europe, accentuating the film’s painted backgrounds. Bella’s immaturity grants her the freedom typically commanded by men of the period, freed from societal constraints as she applies logic without understanding. Emma Stone’s performance is fascinating as Bella evolves over the course of the film in both knowledge and capability, whilst the men around her stagnate — it is a rare opportunity for a single actor to take a character from early childhood to realised adulthood. In the abstract many of the intermediate scenes are bizarre and uncomfortable — particularly given the quantity of sex — and Poor Things must have required extreme trust from its actors that Lanthimos would successfully tie this all together. He has always been a director of singular vision but here it seems stripped of pretension, producing something sly yet whimsical, witty yet haunting.


QuickView: A Most Wanted Man (2014)

“And all that damage we leave behind. All those lives. All those empty rooms. What were they even for? You have asked yourself that question? Why we do what we do?”

Günther Bachmann

Adapted from a John le Carré novel inspired by the abduction and rendition from Germany of the innocent Murat Kurnaz, this is an old-fashioned slow burn thriller that could be criticised for its meandering nature were its explosive conclusion not so purposive and memorable. A Most Wanted Man is obliquely critical of American foreign policy and overreach, whilst exploring the moral conflicts on a personal level for both those in the intelligence services and those who cooperate with them. One of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final films, released shortly after his death, he delivers a powerful central performance as an agent doggedly pursuing a terrorist financier whilst trying to protect his investigation from intervention by the local police or the USA. The focal point is a Chechnian fugutive who might be a refugee or a terrorist, an angle that remains relevant a decade later as refugees continue to be treated with suspicion. Rachel McAdams provides the counterpoint as a lawyer aiding the dispossessed, with Willem Dafoe the neutral banker caught unwillingly in the middle, though the film’s coldly clinical perspective limits our connection with any of the characters. A Most Wanted Man lacks the flair and intrigue of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — for me the quintessential Le Carré adaptation — but it asks more pressing political questions.


QuickView: The Northman (2022)

“I will avenge you, Father! I will save you, Mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!”

Amleth, The Northman

The Northman’s thin plot takes the barest bones of Hamlet — a son sworn to avenge his father and kill his usurper uncle — but succeeds in transplanting this revenge tale into a compellingly foreboding world of Norse mythology. Robert Eggers seeks verisimilitude not only in bringing to life Viking reality but also their mythology and ritual practices. Atmospherically akin to The Green Knight, the pacing requires patience though Viking violence provides more action. The budget and scale may have increased dramatically from Eggers’ previous projects like The Lighthouse, but The Northman retains the same intensity through personal conflict. Alexander Skarsgård is a brooding presence, hulking and animalistic, humanised through his gentler interactions with the wonderful Anya Taylor-Joy as an understanding counterpoint. The characters are (or feel themselves to be) pawns to the whims of fate, and the cinematography reflects this with vast Icelandic vistas that dwarf individuals in the frame. It may be difficult to find joy in the world Eggers has created but the uncompromising experience is more gripping than most big budget modern cinema.


QuickView: Nightmare Alley (2021)

“People are desperate to tell you who they are. Desperate to be seen.”


Where Guillermo del Toro’s previous film, The Shape of Water, featured a mute protagonist, the manipulative Stanton Carlisle is quite the talker. However his larconic introduction, sporting an Indiana Jones silhouette and barely speaking for the opening 20 minutes, allows us to breathe in the 1930s carnival world that lends itself to del Toro’s visual mastery, at once fascinating and unpleasant. When the plot demands that Carlisle’s mentalism act graduates from carnival to cabaret, Nightmare Alley remains sumptuous but can feel hollow. The cast is excellent, with a smattering of star power and a smorgasbord of supporting character actors. Bradley Cooper is on strong form as the noir anti-hero, charming yet greedy, perfectly offset by Cate Blanchett’s underestimated femme fatale — their scenes together are the best part of a deliberately slow burn story that meanders for slightly too long, punctuated with an abrupt jump that makes a well-signposted conclusion less satisfying. Whilst its storytelling can be faulted, Nightmare Alley is never less than vividly captivating.


QuickView: The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse poster

“How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two Days? Where are we? Help me to recollect.”

Thomas Wake

A bizarre dramatic thriller that veers into horror as two lighthouse keepers on an isolated island struggle to maintain their sanity, The Lighthouse relies upon the combative, escalating performances of the film’s only two characters. Willem Dafoe’s irascible senior “wickie”, showing occasional softness only when he drinks, seems at first less nuanced than Robert Pattinson’s increasingly manic role. As we realise we are seeing much through the unreliable eyes of the latter, it emerges that Dafoe is effectively playing two roles, with the audience left to determine (or perhaps decree) reality. The use of black and white is more than mere affectation, the starkly oppressive visuals matched by overbearing sound design, frequently interrupted by the blare of a passing ship’s foghorn. Robert Eggers is unafraid to have darkness swallow most of the screen during night sequences. Even the use of the Academy aspect ratio is claustrophobic by modern standards — pressed in at the sides — as much as it harkens back to classic 1930s horror.


QuickView: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

“I can only see the world as it should be. And when it is not, the imperfection stands out like the nose in the middle of a face. It makes most of life unbearable. But, it is useful in the detection of crime.”

Hercule Poirot

Kenneth Branagh’s slickly produced take on Agatha Christie’s most famous novel is filled with shots of sweeping grandeur but what lies beneath is disappointingly bland. Branagh invests some time getting beneath Poirot’s magnificent whiskers, exploring the way an obsessive need for perfection informs his skill as a detective. The remainder of the characters are merely sketches, providing the fantastic ensemble cast little to do with just a few scenes apiece. Presumably intended to capitalise on Sherlock Holmes’ return to popularity, the film works best as a character study of Poirot and the moral quandary he must resolve. However, it still relies on its central mystery, a whodunnit that unfolds poorly with excessive exposition and an unsatisfying reveal peppered with flashbacks to provide information not previously communicated.


Spider-man (2002)

director: Sam Raimi
starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco
running time: 111 mins

“Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.”

Uncle Ben

Spiderman is bright, looks great, and is thoroughly enjoyable. While it lasts. The trouble is that its fast pace and excitement fades all too quickly afterwards, and it’s lack of depth becomes painfully apparent.

The first half of the film is basically a straight retelling of Spiderman’s origins as in the comic. A geeky, unpopular science whiz Peter Parker [Tobey Maguire] is bitten by a genetically modified super-spider, granting him incredible strenth and dexterity as well as the ability to scale walls and shoot webbing from his wrists (a slight, but acceptable, deviation from the source material). Meanwhile his best friend’s father, millionaire Norman Osborne [Willem Dafoe], decides to test his new performance enhancing drugs on himself after the threat of losing his military financing. This results in creeping insanity and the creation of an evil alter-ego, The Green Goblin, who threatens the safety of New York, and those Peter cares about.

Things start off remarkably well, largely due to Maguire’s acting. He seems far more at home as the bullied, bumbling high school nerd, secretly in love with his neighbour Mary Jane Watson [Kirsten Dunst]. Dunst, whose poor role is essentially eye candy with much screaming, actually manages to make something of her character, with a sparkling and sympathetic performance of what little she is given. The audience truly feels for her, seeing her popularity as a way to escape her troubled home life.

Willem Dafoe offers a brilliantly charismatic performance as the villainous Green Goblin, looking the part both in and out of costume (which looks rather like an old Power Rangers prop). He really shines in a split personality argument with himself which few others could have delivered with any credibility. Other smaller roles are equally well played, notably J.K. Simmons as the editor of The Daily Bugle, the paper for which Parker is a photographer.

So with so much fine acting, where could things go wrong? Well, Sam Raimi’s usual creativity is not evident here, pushed aside by commercial concerns. The unremarkable rock soundtrack is clearly more focused on CD-sales than really embellishing the film (Macy Gray’s cameo appearance was utterly unnecessary). Raimi has also directed comicbook adaptations before, of course, Darkman in 1990. While this lacked the big-budget glamour of Spiderman, an interesting an intelligent script made it far more engaging.

The dialogue here is nothing short of awful, even for a comic book movie, often resulting in Maguire sounding slightly embarassed as he intones some of Spiderman’s worst lines. Only when Raimi’s tongue-in-cheek humour is evident does it become bearable, such as The Green Goblin cackling, “We’ll meet again Spiderman”, in an intentionally corny departure. There are similarly amusing moments such as the fast inbterview-sequence where New Yorkers offer their views on the mysterious new superhero, and the Superman homage where we see a running Peter Parker tear open his shirt to reveal a costume logo underneath. After the characters have been competently set up, the plot swiftly degenerates into a hero versus villain bash, with an unforgivably routine ending. A cringeworthy “September 11th” inspired scene shows New Yorkers aiding Spiderman, before he finally confronts The Green Goblin in a horribly bland punch-up. Equally, the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane that began as alluring eventually becomes irritating rather than sad as is intended.

The film is really sold on the special effects and action sequences. Now, while there are many well-shot and nicely choreographed fights, there are also a number of equally unimpressive moments, especially the closing sequence. The computer generated sequences of Spiderman web-slinging and swinging through the streets are utterly breathtaking (describing it as “aerial choreography” in behind-the-scenes programmes is no exaggeration), but at other moments the graphics are well under par, spoiling the overall effect. The final shots of Spiderman of him swinging through the city to a flagpole, show just how much the film relies on this as a selling point, however, and also lends the feeling that no one really knew how to wrap things up.

While the more recent Daredevil will undoubtedly be accused of ripping off Spiderman, it cannot be denied that this is really a cheap day-glo immitation of Tim Burton’s stylish Batman, right down to the giant balloon sequence. And the fact is that although it was shot over a decade earlier, it remains far superior. Spiderman is a highly entertaining romp while it lasts, but wears off very quickly leaving a disappointingly tacky aftertaste.


"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."

(CC) BY-NC 2003-2023 Priyan Meewella

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