Doodad Kind of Town

Labor Day Weekend Movie Diary, Part 1
September 5, 2010, 4:16 pm
Filed under: George Clooney, Kenneth Branagh

Friday, September 3:

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

 Kenneth’s Branagh’s gloriously nutty take on the classic horror film proves to be a ravishing, if overdressed, period piece with feverish performances by (elsewhere) very fine actors who leave no piece of the gorgeous scenery unchewed.   Each and every scene is risibly overwrought, and Branagh fully indulges his penchant for grandiose, distracting camerawork.  (Fast-moving, 360-degree shots are used so many times that their dramatic impact is lost entirely, and you wind up feeling as though you are intermittently watching the film from a Tilt-a-Whirl car.) In one scene, the camera swoops in – apparently from the upper reaches of the stratosphere – to close in on a lone figure trekking across a vast expanse of Alpine snow, and it plays like a wintertime version of  The Sound of Music‘s prologue.  I half expected the character (Robert DeNiro as the monster, hamming it up behind stunningly grotesque make-up) to start twirling as the shot closed in on him and singing that “the hills are alive!!!!” The shot is breathtaking – and breathtakingly silly – all at once.  As is the rest of the film.

The Last Station 

Michael Hoffman’s comedy/drama on Tolstoy’s last days – and the fight between his wife and the members of the “Tolstoyan” movement over his will – is a vastly entertaining trifle thanks to the masterly performances by all involved.  Christopher Plummer’s Tolstoy wears both his exhausted sadness and fleeting moments of joy with impressive lightness, while Helen Mirren finds layers of tenderness and grief within in a role that could all too easily have been played for shrill, comic desperation alone. 

But greatness from Mirren and Plummer is certainly no surprise, and between them, they’ve garnered enough award nominations for these roles to underscore that point.  Instead, I found myself admiring  another, unheralded performance in The Last Station. 

James McAvoy is a reliable and somewhat underrated actor whose gift for playing the thankless ‘witness to history’ role was well-demonstrated opposite Forrest Whitaker’s terrifying Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  Here McAvoy plays a young emissary from the Tolstoyan movement, sent to accompany Tolstoy is his final days to ensure that the rights to the eminent author’s works are passed to the Russian people rather than kept by his conniving wife.  Instead his character becomes a trusted and sympathetic confidant to both Tolstoys, and it’s McAvoy’s nuanced and generous performance that helps the audience to sympathize with and love both those characters, even at their most monstrous and irrational moments.  I’ve written before about “stealth performers,” the kind of actors whose quiet brilliance sneaks up on you in the midst of the more histrionic performances that surround them.  McAvoy is definitely one of those performers.

Saturday, September 4

The American

Surprise, surprise, surprise!!

George Clooney’s latest star vehicle turns out to not be a multiplex-friendly action/suspense yarn in the mode of the “Bourne” franchise, but rather a moody, contemplative European art film.  Much to the consternation of the audience with which I saw The American, I might add.  You could actually hear the murmurs of “What the hell?” as the audience shuffled out during the closing credits.  The dingbat couple next to me, who kept giggling through the sex scenes, actually got up and left at the 2/3 mark.  And they weren’t the only ones.

That being said, let us remember that European art films aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be, and though I admired the spare and calculatedly weary tone of The American, I found it a bit difficult to get through.  The film takes its sweet time establishing the day-to-day details of Clooney’s existence in a tucked-away Italian village.  His performance as a burned-out hit man working in secret is contained and controlled to the point of near-tedium.  The film put me in mind of nothing so much as mid-tier, late-period Antonioni.  Which is admirable, but still, you know, mid-tier as opposed to top-tier (i.e. The Passenger as opposed to Blow Up.)

One interesting feature: there is absolutely no musical score until near the very end, when it suddenly cranks up a run-of-the-mill, suspense-building musical underscoring.  This baffled me.  I asked my boyfriend afterwards, “Why do think they suddenly inserted music at the end of the movie?”  His reply? “To keep Americans awake and in their seats.”  He’s a smart cookie, that man.

4 Comments so far
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Patty, I always find your writing impressive and an absolute joy to read.

You always know exactly what you’re talking about. The fact that you and I agree 90% of the time on practically anything (including the finer points) is certainly enough to keep me interested.

Sisters in spirit and all that…

Your boyfriend sounds like a smart, sophisticated man. That’s truly awesome. I’m absolutely delighted at your happiness.

Now to the films in question…

I haven’t seen Kenneth Branagh’s version of MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN in ages. Horror is a genre that I have absolutely no affinity for. But Mr. Branagh is an exceptionally accomplished director/actor. Helena Bonham Carter is a magnificent performer and Robert De Niro is, of course, legendary.

I remember I enjoyed it very much, watching it on the tube on a Sunday afternoon. It’s big, bombastic and very entertaining.

I saw THE LAST STATION four times in the cinema. It reminds me of some of the little 60s arthouse gems that I’ve seen very late at night on television: MORGAN, ISADORA etc. TLS possesses precisely that kind of feel.

Christopher Plummer is amazing. He draws you in effortlessly.

I also really dug Paul Giamatti. His character is such an arrogant amoral weasel. He just doesn’t care.

And that great line that he had (along with his impeccable timing) always brought the house down every single time I saw it. He looks at Helen sharply with his steely beady little eyes and proclaims: “If you were my wife I’d kill myself…OR GO TO AMERICA.”


I’m a huge fan of Dame Helen. In a career of mesmerizing performances, this is clearly one of her best. The Countess is a complicated woman. She has to have what she wants…and she’s not leaving without it.

She adores her husband and she is an equal partner in that relationship. Being the stylish aristocratic icon that she is, there is no way in hell that she will allow him to sell off everything that they have both worked so hard for. A life of poverty (not to mention chastity…God forbid) would be entirely unacceptable to her.

She’s a determined focused drama queen that won’t go down without a fight. I loved every single minute she was on screen.

But I wholeheartedly agree with you about Mr. McAvoy. He won me over in ATONEMENT. I saw that ten times. So I certainly had ample opportunity to focus on his brilliant work. He was equally excellent in WANTED.

The sky’s the limit for him.

In TLS, he’s totally different again. He has such an astonishing range. He’s so decent and earnest. Tries so hard to do the right thing. His enormous azure eyes just gleam with innocence and goodness.

Naturally he comes to the immediate attention of the direct free thinking fiery Masha. But boys like that are always catnip for that kind of girl.

No big surprise there.

Finally, I did see THE AMERICAN last week. I haven’t reviewed much as of late. I won’t even bother with this one. I prefer to preserve my passion for events that are sufficiently worthy.

I really loved CONTROL. Sam Riley is a revelation in that.

But THE AMERICAN just lives (and ultimately dies…right in front of your eyes) on a spare minimalistic European POV and all of that endless infernal layered symbolism.

I mean…ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST on the television in the bar? The priest? The paid professional with the heart of gold? Everybody’s out to get him. The cliches just don’t stop. You know exactly how it’s going to end – and it happens just like that.

George was fine. He was especially affecting in his last moments on screen. The women were very intriguing. But other than that there wasn’t much going on.

I’ve never seen THE PASSENGER. But this ain’t BLOW UP. Not even close.

That’s all I’ve got for now, Patty. It’s great to have you back.

Comment by Miranda Wilding

Miranda –

Always lovely to hear from you and thanks for your kind comments.

I do some love me some Kenneth Branagh, but I must admit, I find his directorial skills uneven at best. (And I get really REALLY tired of his penchant for his swirling 360-degree shots.) You nail it when you call Frankenstein bombastic.

And your comments on James McAvoy are perfect – you state (far more vividly than I did) why McAvoy’s performance in The Last Station is so wonderful.

Finally, I’m happy to see that someone else was underwhelmed by The American. So many critical hosannas are being raised, and while I do appreciate what it was trying to do …. it just didn’t succeed. I love George Clooney, but this kind of role is not his forte, I found him no so much complicated as constipated. And that whole idea of him falling in love with/being saved by the prostitute is just so trite.

Comment by Pat

Hello Pat!!!

Congratulations on your wonderful new abode, and on your blogging resumption. I haven’t seen THE AMERICAN yet, but perhaps I’ll get it in in the upcoming week. But I must say you haven’t exactly strenghthened my resolve here! Ha! I’ve been under the weather as of late, as my kidney stone situation has flared up again, but I am hoping this will be resolved by the end of the month. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the support you’ve shown at the Monday Morning Diary in the past months. It’s always a special treat to hear from you.

I must say that Branagh’s FRANKENSTEIN is a complete misfire, (as you’ve noted here in an eloquent assessment) and the director only succeeded twice in his directorial career (with HENRY V and HAMLET) His talents are basically Shakespearean, and apart from stage fabric, his camerawork is rather haphazard.

With THE LAST STATION I am with you lock, stock and barrel. Plummer is magnificent (I’ve had the great fortune of once witnessing him on stage in a version of MACBETH) and both Mirren and McAvoy are terrific as well. The final scene was one of the most shattering of any film released this year, and the work by the young Russian composer was piercingly beautiful (with the score for A SINGLE MAN, one of teh two best of the year in fact).

Wonderful work here, it’s great to see you back in action my very good friend!

Comment by Sam Juliano

Sam –

Thanks so much for your kind comments and support. I’m sorry to hear that the kidney stones are causing you pain and will be wishing you a successful treatment and recovery very soon.

I’m so glad you mentioned the score from “The Last Station” – it was indeed lovely, as was the score of “A Single Man.”

As for “The American,” there are many critics out there who seem to love it – I’m not among them, but I can admit that it is refreshing to see a film of this kind after a typical summer full of noisy blockbusters. I admine what it was trying to do, I just don’t think it succeeded.

Comment by pat0105

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