Posts Tagged ‘Willem Dafoe’

A Tangle of Strangers

Murder on the Orient Express

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Olivia Colman, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr. Tom Bateman

Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn) both stars as the infamous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot  and directs another remake of the classic Agatha Christie novel Murder on the Orient Express featuring a stunning cast including Oscar nominees Michelle Pfeiffer (Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys), Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street) and Oscar winners Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love).

Sporting a profoundly massive mustache, Branagh takes Hercule Poirot to new extremes in this 21st century remake which is glossy and possesses sumptuous production design but like all extremely long train journeys is boring in the middle, despite the spectacular scenery.

Murder on the Orient Express is set in 1934 and starts off promisingly with a fantastic opening, attention grabbing scene at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and then moves on to the Orient Express, a luxury train service which travels from the chaotic train station in Istanbul right across Europe to Paris.

As the gangster Edward Ratchett is found murdered in his compartment, stabbed multiple times everybody becomes a suspect on the Orient Express and soon Poirot has to interview all the cast as the train is stuck in an icy tunnel somewhere over Yugoslavia. A tangle of strangers confined to a luxury train which has gone off the rails.

Everybody is not what they seems, which is natural considering this is an Agatha Christie novel and while the cast does an admirable job, it is really Michelle Pfeiffer who wows audiences with her demure yet slightly vicious portrayal of globetrotting husband seeker Caroline Hubbard who stands out among a fairly impressive ensemble cast. Pfeiffer really acts.

Dame Judi Dench’s turn as Princess Dragomiroff is hardly noticeable, while the best scenes in the film are between Pfeiffer and Branagh.

It is refreshing to see Michelle Pfeiffer making such a glorious big screen come back as she truly is a brilliant actress, not to mention singer – for she also sang the film’s original song at the end.

Without revealing who the killer is, needless to say Kenneth Branagh will be returning with another big screen adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, Death on the Nile. Should be fascinating if only he would curb that mustache.

Audiences that enjoyed the original seventies film adaptations of the Agatha Christie novels, will enjoy this ambitious if slightly flawed remake. Think Evil Under the Sun.

Recommended viewing but whether the film will dazzle at the box-office in an increasingly cluttered 21st century CGI film line-up remains to be seen. Murder on the Orient Express gets a film rating of 7 out of 10.

 

 

 

Monsters and Black Powder

The Great Wall

Director: Zhang Yimou

Cast: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Tian Jing, Lu Han, Eddie Peng, Kenny Lin

Chinese director Zhang Yimou has contributed immensely to Chinese cinema and that of the world. His exceptional films include Curse of the Golden Flower, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern which won the Bafta for Best Foreign Language Film back in 1993. His more recent works include Hero, Flowers of War and more recently Coming Home.

Almost all of Yimou’s films are in Chinese featuring an oriental cast yet after he made Flowers of War with Oscar winner Christian Bale it was only natural that Hollywood would court him with the lucrative offer of making a Big Budget action film. The Great Wall starring Oscar winner Matt Damon and Chilean actor Pedro Pascal recently seen in HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones has been ridiculed for its casting and its implausible plot.

Yet despite all its detractors, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, a historical fantasy epic is still breath taking to be hold even if the script and the acting needed some rescuing. Damon and Pascal play European mercenaries who land up at the Great Wall of China only to be imprisoned by Commander Lin played by Tian Jing. The Europeans so oddly out of place in ancient China especially when Pascal’s character Tovar keeps on saying amigo are embroiled in an ancient battle against the Tao Tse, vicious monster like creatures which periodically attack the historic fortification.

Damon stars as William and Pascal plays Spanish mercenary Tovar who join the fight aided by a desire to steal gun powder from the Chinese and take back to Europe to bolster the many continental wars raging far away in England and Spain. Instead they are unwillingly co-opted by The Nameless Order to fight these savage beasts and protect the ancient Chinese city from being invaded and destroyed.

Whilst the battle sequences are breath taking and the fight sequences are watchable, this is by no means Zhang Yimou’s best work. Perhaps he should stick to an all Chinese cast and rather do imperial films about ancient China which he was so brilliant at directing especially the visually spectacular Raise the Red Lantern.

The Westernization of this great Chinese director is not good if The Great Wall is anything to go by. Whilst the action fantasy film is enjoyable it’s by no means brilliant.

And what was Matt Damon thinking? He did The Great Wall after The Martian, which as in both films he is equally out of place in. Even Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe (Platoon, Shadow of a Vampire) looks bewildered in The Great Wall playing Ballard, a double crossing European trader who is only after the Black Powder.

Despite all the monsters and lavish battle sequences, director Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall only scores a 6 out of 10 which doesn’t bode well for future Chinese American co-productions especially considering that this film bombed at the North American box office.

On the up side, The Great Wall remained number 2 on the South African box office for a second consecutive week.

The Art of Surveillance

A Most Wanted Man

A most_wanted_man

 Director: Anton Corbijn

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Rainer Bock

Dutch director of The American, Anton Corbijn skilfully brings to cinematic life the spymaster John le Carre’s novel A Most Wanted Man set in the German port city of Hamburg, the site in which the 9/11 terror attacks emanated from.

Oscar winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) in one of his last onscreen performances before his untimely death in New York in 2014, plays German intelligence officer Gunther, an overweight heavy drinking, chain smoking yet patience man who engineers a web of intrigue and surveillance when a Chechen Muslim illegal immigrant arrives in Hamburg seeking asylum.

The immigrant is half Chechen and half Russian and his true reasons for arriving in Hamburg is to claim access to a private bank account held by his Russian father who stashed funds after several covert and illegal Russian/Chechen wars.

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The most wanted man, Issa is a Muslim convert, played by Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin, who seeks shelter with a Turkish mother and son. They in turn seek advice on his precarious existence with a human rights lawyer and refugee sympathizer Annabelle Richter played against type by Rachel McAdams.

Gunther with the help of his surveillance team including Daniel Bruhl (Rush) as Maximilian and German actress Nina Hoss as Irna Frey who manipulate Annabelle into setting up a play to gain the confidence of Issa whose sudden wealth is being held by a suave German banker Tommy Brue played by Willem Dafoe (Nymphomaniac).

The German surveillance team is interested in where the funds might go, namely to a prominent Muslim businessman Abdullah in Hamburg who is funneling cash to jihadist groups in the Middle East through a shipping company based in Cyprus.

A Most Wanted Man’s opening scene focuses on the murky swirling waters of the river Elbe running through the second largest port in Europe after Rotterdam, a fitting motif for the tricky surveillance and bureaucracy involved in the gathering of intelligence on suspected terrorists post 9/11. This is an intricate geopolitical affair, with allegiances and deception as part of the cold business of espionage in the tradition of Zero Dark Thirty and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Into the play comes the seemingly sympathetic CIA officer, Martha Sullivan played by Robin Wright, last seen in the excellent series House of Cards. As Gunther increasingly manipulates both Issa and Annabelle to his own advantage without wanting a full scale extradition, the tension and strain becomes almost unbearable.

This is a well plotted gritty thriller without the flashy car chases or violent fight sequences synonymous with The Bourne Trilogy. Director Corbijn opts for a more sedated, yet carefully paced spy narrative, slow moving in parts, rather emphasizing the mental and emotional strain on all those involved especially Gunther, with his unraveling coming to a head at the film’s rather poignant unexpected conclusion.

At just over two hours, A Most Wanted Man could have been edited in parts, but is nevertheless a fascinating study of the excruciating art of surveillance. Recommended for cinema goers who enjoy well-plotted intelligent spy thrillers without the glamour or excitement of a Bond film.

Love = Lust + Jealousy

Nymphomaniac Vol: 1 and 2

nymphomaniac_ver16

Director: Lars von Trier

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Stacy Martin, Udo Kier

Unlike 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen’s handsome New York set film about sex addiction, the highly acclaimed Shame, starring a gorgeous yet libidinous Michael Fassbender, Danish director and auteur, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Volumes 1 and 2 is on an entirely different level.

Explicit, provocative, brutal and shocking, this is von Trier’s seminal work on Freudian psycho-analytic film theory, the nature of sexuality and of society’s views on sexual deviancy and obsession. Warning these two films, making up a total of four hours viewing time is NOT for sensitive or prudish cinema goers.

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Von Trier’s favourite muse Charlotte Gainsbourg (Anti-Christ) stars as Joe, a relentless nymphomaniac who is discovered beaten in a dark city alley way by a seemingly kind mysterious bachelor Seligman played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Girl with The Dragon Tattoo). As Joe recovers with copious cups of tea in Seligman’s drab apartment she frankly recounts in episodic form her life thus far as a nymphomaniac and the events leading up to her supposed downfall.

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The younger version of Joe is played by Stacy Martin who as a young licentious teenager seduces all the men on the train in a bet with her friend B, played by Sophie Kennedy Clark. The sex scenes are graphic and unrelenting. Her insatiable sexual appetite is temporarily quelled when she meets Jerome wonderfully played by Shia LaBeouf, who has definitely come a long way from his Transformers movies. LaBeouf proves to be superb as the equally lustful Jerome, who apparently sent a sex tape to von Trier as part of his audition for this part in Nymphomaniac. It proves that Shia LaBeouf is willing to take major risks as an actor and more recently as a notorious performance artist.

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Joe as a young girl displays her close relationship with her father played by Christian Slater (True Romance) and her non-existent relationship with her aloof mother played by Connie Nielsen (Gladiator). As Joe’s sexual awakening becomes more ferocious she ventures into some dark territory particularly as she resumes a relationship with Jerome and attempts to settle down and lead a normal existence. All this is shot in grey colours with lots of graphic nudity and sex, with von Trier intentionally deglamourizing sex and sensuality on screen and deliberately punctuating these pornographic images with bizarre directorial screenshots of fly fishing, predators, sunsets and forests.

In between Joe’s sexual adventures all done in flashbacks, is the frank discussion between the mature Joe a scarred Gainsbourg and the supposedly asexual Seligman, who provides some intellectual insights into her sex addiction along with Freudian psychoanalysis and historical anecdotes. As Seligman explains in Volume 2, that all children are born with polymorphic sexual perversions according to Freud which gradually are repressed or discovered  latently as the child becomes an adult and thus manifests itself in later life. This is classic Freudian psychoanalysis. Even Love is equated to Lust+ Jealousy.

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So despite all the subliminal theory and explicit pornography, is Nymphomaniac Volumes 1 and 2 any good? Volume 1 is better than Volume 2, a more superior and controlled film but the entire diatribe about Nymphomania could have been edited into a more concise and elegant film. Then again Von Trier is not one to bow to Western film aesthetics and has never done so. His film 2003 Dogville was shot without sets in a sparse Brechtian style about a close knit community who does not accept outsiders with Nicole Kidman in the lead.

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Nymphomania Volume 1 and 2 is not easy or comfortable viewing, but that its point. Especially Volume 2 where Joe’s sexual addiction takes her into the dangerous world of Sadomasochism, cue a rather sadistic master K played by Jamie Bell of The Eagle and Billy Eliot Fame. There are also brief appearances by Uma Thurman as a wronged wife Mrs H. whose husband has fallen for the nubile, precocious and younger Joe, bravely played by Stacy Martin and Willem Dafoe as Joe’s last employer a shady debt collector.

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What should really be applauded is the bravery that these actors show in starring in such an explicit, unconventional and shocking film including Stacy Martin, Christian Slater, Shia LaBeouf and naturally Charlotte Gainsbourg (Anti-Christ). Audiences might want to walk out in several particularly disturbing scenes, but it’s worth staying until the end of Joe’s confession to Seligman, as all is not what it seems… Those not familiar with Lars von Trier’s previous films should definitely stay away.

Fading Reign of Art Nouveau

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton

Moonrise Kingdom director Wes Anderson assembles a hugely talented ensemble cast led by the irresistable Ralph fiennes as Gustave H.  a suave Concierge at The Grand Budapest Hotel who gets embroiled in a whimsical art theft after his benefactor dies mysteriously and her evil son Dimitri played by Adrien Brody pursues the eloquent and flamboyant Gustave in a fictitious republic of  Zubrowka representative of a modern day Yugoslavia or even The Czech Republic, but emblematic of a crumbling decadent and ravaged Eastern Europe.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a wonderful plot, inventive, hilarious, witty and beautifully orchestrated matched by a superb ensemble cast the likes of which haven’t been seen on screen for years including Oscar nominees F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus), Harvey Keitel (Bugsy), Willem Dafoe (Shadow of a Vampire), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), Edward Norton (Primal Fear), Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton), Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) and Jude Law (The Talented Mr Ripley) – all consummate character actors and brilliant performers in the own right.

Each perfectly constructed shot in the Grand Budapest Hotel is a pastiche of old European movies and landscapes reminiscent of a time between the wars when civility was still in fashion. When Old European Hotels were lavish and comfortable establishments with Bell Boys, Lift Operators, Chefs and naturally charming yet slimy Concierges adding to the intrigue of its elegance. When Hotels were places to spend a week, when time was plentiful and guests came to languish in the extraordinary facilities of these beautifully decadent Hotels which populated the ski slopes and small towns of Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

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Even though, the fictional country,  Zubrowka is representative of a mixture of Eastern European countries which all suffered under the Nazi’s and then under the Communists, the institutional history of such a charming hotel remained the centre of a town’s attraction, where legends of its fabled guests were passed down over the decades. The Grand Budapest Hotel reflects an era when Art Nouveau reigned supreme especially in the 1930’s. This comedy set in 1932, featuring a complicated and whimsical if not absolutely witty plot is deftly handled by screenwriter Anderson who makes sure each of his cast members whether on screen for a second or for several scenes delivers a perfect performance.

The cast also includes Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Owen Wilson and Tilda Swinton. Inspired by the works of 20th century Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel is expertly crafted, dazzlingly assembled and wonderfully executed. A real treat of a film which will sure to delight audiences for years to come  much like the Hotel whose guests found its hidden charms suitably enchanting. Highly recommended viewing and a winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, The Grand Budapest Hotel is marvelous, whimsical, witty and comical with an underlying menace attached to the action, making the comedy almost tragic in its relevance.

 

 

 

Fear in a Forest of Despair

ANTICHRIST

Fear in a forest of imaginary angst and abysmal despair….

So the controversial Danish director Lars Von Trier premiered his new film Anti-Christ at the Cannes film festival in May 2009, where it was alternately jeered and praised. I was fortunate enough to catch a late screening of the film at the Durban International Film Festival http://www.durbanfilmfest.co.za/ in July, knowing that Anti-Christ due to its explicit content and supreme visual style would not make the Cinema Nouveau circuit by any stretch of the imagination and surely I was not disappointed in any expectations of controversy.

No love lost in this demonic garden...

No love lost in this demonic garden…

Anti-Christ featuring a powerful performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg who received a best actress at Cannes and an equally disturbing performance by Willem Dafoe as a couple in Washington state who due to the tragic death of their child suffer a breakdown of psychological emotional and physical proportions second to none. The film, like Dogville is stylised and divided into chapters and while initially you wonder what the fuss is about, you soon find yourself watching explicit porno-graphic images coupled with some more violent and deeply disturbing sequences of self-mutilation as the protagonists marriage unravels to a point of utter destruction towards the final act. The disturbing scenes set in a forest lodge where all the couples fears and angers can be played out to the edge of insanity is part horror film reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project and part The War of the Roses without the trappings of material possessions. Dafoe, as  psychologist and father questions his wife after her initial mental breakdown and says “What is your greatest fear?”

Her answer is “Being alone in the Forest”.

Facing those fears lead the couple on a downward psychological and often disturbing journey into the depths of their own depravity and soon any defiance of social conventions are evident and fulfilled where in this destruction only nature takes precedence. Is this the proverbial tale of Adam and Eve fighting in an imaginary Garden of Eden? No, its more like after they have been corrupted and expelled into the wilderness of their own disintegration, violence and abysmal despair.

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Anti-Christ is not for the faint-hearted and will definitely cause debate, sometimes derision and certain denouncement. Lars von Trier known for his unusual eccentricities like a fear of flying and being raised by a family of nudists is show to demonstrate all these idiosyncrasies in his uncompromising and thought-provoking style.

If you enjoyed Dogville or Breaking the Waves, you might be curious to watch Anti-Christ, but warnings abound as to its explicit content and offensive treatment of the destruction of a marriage. As for his notoriety that is secure, von Trier as director will continually attract art-house cinema-goers and actors who wish to work with an auteur that will expectantly push the boundaries of their craft in a Brechtian and creative way.

The fact that von Trier has attracted big stars to his films like Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Emily Watson and Willem Dafoe is testament to his allure as a stylish and innovatively unconventional director, a Danish version of David Lynch with far more intensity and stark realism…. after all both Lynch and von Trier managed to garner huge attention at festivals around the world and their movies whether it be Blue Velvet or Anti-Christ will be classics of the controversial kind. As for Willem Dafoe, that truly enigmatic actor, who attracted critical praise in Shadow of a Vampire, has now appeared in both a von Trier and a David Lynch film. Who can forget that trailer park, leather clad seduction sequence that Dafoe performed with sinister dedication to the naive Laura Dern in Wild at Heart?

Luscious Lula saved by the interminable Sailor

Luscious Lula saved by the interminable Sailor

 

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