Tag Archives: HBO

Top Ten of 2013

Frances-Ha-film-still-31. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2013, US) – A sensitive look at the ever-increasing pangs of quarter-life crises. An immaculate twinning of star Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach, who each line the precipices of contemporary cinematic visions of stilted adulthood and angst. A beautiful monochrome love letter to New York City by way of the French New Wave, Woody Allen style. A perfect film that spoke to me in innumerable ways.

Breaking-Bad_32. Breaking Bad – Season Five, part 2 (x8) (Cr. Vince Gilligan, 2013, AMC, US) – Completing both a perfect season of television and arguably one of the finest TV dramas ever created, these 8 episodes were a sensational concoction of the show’s finest ingredients, blended together to produce a thudding, devastating curtain close for television’s finest anti-hero: Walter White, whose journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface reaches its poetic conclusion.

Standout episode: Ozymandias (s05xe14, dir. Rian Johnson): Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking, shocking and unrestrainedly shattering episodes of television ever made. Johnson extends the show’s cinematic roots and delivers something that is at once a turning point for every character involved and a treatise on the slow-ebbing consequences of deceit.

28-before-midnight3. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater, 2013, US) – One of the many jewels in the series’ crown is the searing, incredibly attuned and humanistic writing and delineation of its characters, and Midnight upholds this and remains as true to its own canon as it is to the reality it so believably upholds. Yet, where the opening two chapters were entrenched in illusory romanticism (especially Sunset), the tone here is faintly darker as the simmering themes and various contexts of Jesse and Celine’s conversations take on restless, even drastic edges. Mature topics such as sex, parenthood and careers are explored, as are the permutations that lay, gestating, in between. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

12-years14. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen, 2013, US) – Subjecting the art gloss of previous films Hunger and Shame to a more formal model, McQueen’s latest is a towering achievement; an unremitting and equally gut-wrenching combined vision of survival and the hideousness of an evil that continues to stagnate in America’s past.

3NO9_StarredUp5. Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie, 2013, UK) – A murky concoction of Alan Clarke-esque grit and Shane Meadows’ stark realism, Mackenzie’s latest is a pinned-backed and rough-edged prison drama that takes an unflinching look at institutionalisation, paternity, the unwritten hierarchies of prison and how destructive lifestyles could be seen as strikingly hereditary. With a vérité, fly on the wall approach and superb naturalistic performances (especially from Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn, playing father and son), this may be the stand-out British film of 2014 when it’s released in March.

leaves-upstream-color-reelgood6. Upstream Colour (dir. Shane Carruth, 2013, US) – Just as his first project, Primer, saw Carruth shunning established filmic principles in his approach to implementing the science fiction genre, his latest is more of an innate symphony of ostracism sung from a deeply idiosyncratic voice; an ambitious, inventive and hypnotically contemplative entity wholly beyond compare. It is within a lack of empathy for, and simultaneous defiance of, narrative codes and genre conventions that make this one of the most challenging and markedly unclassifiable films to emanate from American independent cinema in quite some time. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

blue-jasmine-cate-blanchett17. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen, 2013, US) – However patchy his 21st century offerings have been, Allen’s tenacious film-a-year approach has paid dividends in numerously rewarding and productive ways, though its arguable that none have been as achingly, bitterly human, or indeed contemporary, as this. Through the prism of a Tennessee Williams-style outline, Blue Jasmine is another notch on a long list of strong female-led films for the seasoned filmmaker, one that – instead of merely adopting caricatures – retools them to mount a portrait of self-indulgence, privilege and deceit gone crushingly sour. It’s a weighty and progressively devastating drama with a chilly conclusion; an ending where the lyrics of the film’s title track, Blue Moon, ring wholly, hauntingly true for all involved. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

don_apartment38. Mad Men – Season Six (x13) (Cr. Matthew Weiner, 2013, AMC, US) – Essentially answering the question posed to central character Don Draper at the close of season 5 (“Are you alone?”), this sixth season makes atonal lurches from one unexpected plot curve to the next as it burrows further into Don’s shadowy cerebral cortex. A murkier tone – mirroring the tumultuousness of 1968 America – may make this one of the show’s weaker seasons, but a tepid season of Mad Men is still one of the best shows on television, and this makes for a memorably hectic prelude to season seven’s two-tiered series finisher.

Standout episode: The Better Half (s06xe09, dir. Phil Abraham): An unlikely tryst between Don and ex-wife Betty, sharing screen time for the first time since season 4, further sheds light on Don’s doomed approach to companionship, devotion and fidelity.

Spring-Breakers-promo06-780x5209. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine, 2012, US) – Embracing the mainstream whilst simultaneously challenging its codes, Korine’s latest is his most fully realised and accessible film to date; a provocative study of chaos that refuses to sugarcoat the ugliness of what it both admires and reproaches. This could so easily have become what it has been advertised as: a cheap and tawdry perusal through its subject matter, using bikini-clad protagonists as exemplars of the accoutrements of present-day youth. Yet it isn’t merely a straightforward depiction of Girls Gone Wild-inspired carnage; quite the contrary in fact. It digs deep into the psyche and inner-workings of the central friendship, the allure of bad behaviour and self-destructiveness, and how the choices these girls make – and the impact of Britney Spears – reverberates and has repercussions.(Reviewed for Take One)

gimme-the-loot-gimme-the-loot-02-01-2013-4-g10. Gimme the Loot (dir. Adam Leon, 2012, US) – The feature debut of resident New Yorker Leon, this is an authentic and charming story of desperation and the desire to leave ones mark in a modern city that doesn’t particularly care for the protagonist’s outwardly diminutive voices. (Reviewed for CineVue)

Honourable mentions:

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Blackfish (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013, US) – Searing and emotionally exhausting, what Cowperthwaite’s documentary lacks in analytical edges it more than makes up for in the sheer weight and comprehension of its central thesis: the destructive ignorance of SeaWorld and animal captivity.

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Girls – Season Two (x10) (cr. Lena Dunham, 2013, HBO, US) – Small screen auteur Lena Dunham’s excellent, ultra-hip series gets darker and more mature as it goes on, growing into an already well established groove whilst – unlike its protagonists – developing its sense of self.

Standout episode: It’s Back (s02xe08, dir. Jesse Peretz): A superb rug-puller that exemplifies Dunham’s prowess as an actress, storyteller and sculptor of authentic characters with authentic problems.

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Southcliffe (x4) (dir. Sean Durkin, 2013, UK) – Another harrowing offering from Durkin, who transcends and repackages his cinematic presence into this startlingly effective British miniseries, which focuses on a town’s devastation brought on by a spate of shootings. A staggering portrait of manifested frustration and grief, stuffed with excellent performances.

Standout episode: Sorrow’s Child (e03, dir. Sean Durkin). Actor Anatol Yusef effectively plumbs the depth of his character, Paul’s, anguish, building to rousing, hair-raising final moments soundtracked by Otis Redding.

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Museum Hours (dir. Jem Cohen, 2012, Austria) – A lucid, dreamy dissertation on the simultaneous intimacy and implacability of life, death and the art of simply looking.

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After Lucia (dir. Michel Franco, 2012, Mexico) – Released straight to DVD here in the UK, this is a gruelling portrait of bullying and the evils of youth that deserves a wider audience, if not for the relentless torment of its protagonist then for the spectacular performance from the actress who plays her, Tessa Ia. (featured on Best of 2012 list)

(A list dedicated solely to 2013 UK releases can be found on HeyUGuys’ Movie Bloggers poll)

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Interview: Michael Shannon on ‘The Iceman’

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(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)

Richard Kuklinski, the protagonist of The Iceman, is a loving husband and devoted father; a man fiercely protective of his own handcrafted version of the American dream. He lives with an affectionate, sympathetic wife and two doting daughters in the New Jersey suburbs, socialises with friends and throws endearing birthday parties, all the while keeping a steady lid on his true and uncanny persona. Lurking behind this carefully constructed – though believably rounded – front is the real reasons for Kuklinski’s ascension from modest and lowly blue-collar warehouse worker: he is in fact a ruthless hitman for the mafia, and has carved both a lucrative career and a ruthless notoriety out of carrying out the deadly deeds of various mob linchpins. As the number of victims (apparently) enters into triple figure territory, Kuklinski finds it increasingly difficult to continue under his Wall Street magnate-shaped pretences as the murky days of the sixties and seventies roll into the treacherous and unsteady eighties. When the various crime families begin to look inward instead of out and the dark clouds amass, Kuklinski has to decide whether to adapt and keep his family intact, or face the corrosive wrath of total exposure.

 The Polish-American Kuklinski is played by Michael Shannon, marking his first collaboration with Israeli director Ariel Vromen, who, in turn, makes something of an introduction into more notable filmmaking after two relatively unknown features. Since a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2009 for his small, but pivotal, role in Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Revolutionary Road, Shannon has been thrust into the public consciousness as an actor who has a particular penchant for performances of intense and agitated magnitude. From characters such as the restless Curtis in Jeff Nichol’s stellar Take Shelter and as the rancorous Nelson van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, via several significant others, Shannon has gained infamy for parts both supporting and main that are infused with a tangibly penetrative sense of disquiet. His speciality is playing men coming undone, and distinguished filmmakers – from Scorsese and Stone to Herzog and Lumet – have done well in teasing this quality out and making him an on-screen force of caged rage. His next substantial role is the big bad General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, transposing Terence Stamp’s physically composed previous rendering for something altogether more gruff and threatening.

Taking into account his previous work, it would seem that Shannon has naturally gravitated towards a role such as Kuklinski; a real life figure only an actor such as he could really bring the relevant levels of heft to. That Vromen became obsessed with winning over his desired star is a testament to the ripples of significance Shannon has enjoyed since his breakout role in William Friedkin’s feverish 2006 film Bug. Though not a method actor as such, Shannon gained a wealth of insight into who Kuklinski outwardly was by watching “over and over again” the 1992 HBO documentary The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Hitman, a detailed series of one-on-one interviews with the renowned contract killer who remorselessly details how he committed the numerous murders yet shows absolute compassion when speaking about his family. Taking advantage of the full, twenty-hour unedited version, Shannon was able to shape his mannerisms and fully get into the role, an authenticity the film fully benefits from.

Though there was, of course, no residual desire to entertain the notion of getting to know the business that had such an influence on his latest character – no matter how alluring Kuklinski found it, Shannon was able to tease out the essence of the man solely through deep research and, simply put, trying to understand him on a human level. “I found him very relatable”, he says, “If you didn’t know what he had done, I don’t think anybody would dislike the guy. He’s very sharp and charming in his way, and you kind of enjoy listening to him talk. He doesn’t seem like an intrinsically rotten person”. In a film filled with intrigue, violence and gritty deception, the most fascinating aspect of its protagonist is the highlighting of his tortured dual personality, which Shannon went some way in attempting to figure out: “I do feel like I sorted out, at least for myself, the kind of paradigms of [Kuklinski’s] existence, which was that he had a huge amount of rage inside of him based on, I think, a very traumatic childhood. I think both of his parents were pretty sadistic in their own way so he had these demons, and this job of being a hitman gave him the opportunity to try and do something constructive with them, or at least something for monetary gain”.

It would be all too easy for an actor to play someone as objectively malignant as Kuklinski with straightforward malevolence, yet the jewel in the film’s crown is the way Shannon takes this multi-tonal man and makes him somewhat likable; a man governed by what he deems to be an inevitable means to a more fulfilled end. Kuklinski longed for a normal life, yet found himself unable to resign to the generic meaning of the word, no matter how hard he strove for it. Shannon found a line taken from the original interviews and included in the film – where Kuklinski, realising that if his life’s path were entirely up to him, intones: “This would not be me” – very telling about the man’s inner psyche in that in points to his inner, inherent immorality, whilst alluding to debates regarding humanity’s dormant capacity for evil and wrongdoing. Of Kuklinski, Shannon reckons that many found him callous and insensitive in his pursuits, but he always found him to be a picture of self-realisation: “I think at the end of the day he knew who he was and what he had done and he could just never figure out how to stop it”.

In what he believes is a semblance of a Grimm’s Fairytale version of people profiting from the misfortune of others for the sake of upholding domesticity, Shannon attests to the film’s relativity in the way the parable of Kuklinski’s dichotomous existence “merited consideration and contemplation”. It’s a film of heated conflict presided over by Vromen and his leading man’s desire to consciously move away from the sort of quintessential mob pictures that have already been made and, according to Shannon, will scarcely be bettered. For all of his subtle protestations, there exists an anonymity with Shannon’s fans for the fervid and now somewhat commonplace roles he takes on, which all have a through-line typified by fraught anxiety. “I don’t have a thesis or anything in what I do. It’s kind of randomly lined up that way, I guess”. Yet this is an unfair assumption; he finds himself lucky to get work and approaches each role differently, completely untarnished by previous incarnations and rungs on a career that rarely interlock “like Lego”. “Every one’s a journey you have to start from scratch, particularly if you’re playing a real person. You owe it to them to not approach it as if you’re using something you did in some other part. You have to figure them out”.

In fact, he is considering straying away from formula and embracing – as soon as the correct ingredients converge – comedy, after giving a remarkably dark and extremely humorous turn in Funny or Die’s short film Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter earlier this year. This, along with his embracing of big budget, mainstream fare with Man of Steel – which he couldn’t fathom turning down – may allow audiences to begin to witness a more or less dialled down Shannon in more psychologically uncomplicated projects. Although he doesn’t want to take on small-minded limitations for his future career, this would no doubt be a noteworthy segueing to similarly remarkable future roles. However, the longer he stays away from material like Kangaroo Jack, the better.