So for the past five years on this blog I’ve published a year end review, trying to take in as many positives of the previous twelve months as possible. For the last four of those five years, I’ve produced a run-down of what I considered the most memorable performances, but in an attempt to produce as balances an end of year review as possible, I’ve realised that one area normally overlooked by awards is those people who’ve made a consistent contribution to their craft over a number of films. So to try to redress the balance somewhat, I’m instituting two new awards this year, in the form of the Man and Woman Of The Year. I’ve gone with an actor and an actress this year for the main awards, but one of my honourable mentions in the male category isn’t an actor, and I’ll try to be open to all possibilities if this becomes a thing.
Given the enormous outpouring of bile after The Times newspaper somewhat controversially chose Nigel Farage as their Man Of The Year (and that’s a man that could be the member of Parliament for my home town by this time next year; God help us all), I realise I could be on a hiding to nothing, but you have to try these things at least once. Please bear in mind that these might be saints, or they might get their kicks shooting puppies in the park, but this is not a judgement on them as people, merely a recognition for their overall contribution to films I’ve seen in 2014. So in that spirit, please be upstanding – and be gentle – with my Man and Woman Of The Year.
Man Of The Year 2014 is Jack O’Connell
It seems almost impossible that Jack O’Connell is only 24, as it feels like he’s been around for ever. Fittingly for someone born in Derby he made his debut in a film from another East Midlands stalwart, appearing in Shane Meadows’ This Is England as Pukey Nicholls. But the first role I can really remember him grabbing my attention in was the horror thriller which also starred Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly, Eden Lake in 2008. He takes what could be a rather clichéd role as the film’s eventual villain and manages menacing without ever feeling forced, and his eventual triumph is as compelling as it is repulsive. It then felt like he might get stuck in a rut of stock British thugs and bad guys, also appearing in the Michael Caine starrer Harry Brown as a gang member and appearing in 2012’s Tower Block with Sheridan Smith as another local estate thug, but that was another role where he had to play totally unsympathetic yet ultimately comes out on top.
After building up a solid body of stage and TV work, it feels like 2014 is the year he’s finally come into his own in film. His first major role of the year was in the British prison drama Starred Up, a tense and brutal affair that traded heavily on O’Connell’s ability to do distant but remain charismatic. Eric Love is a walking explosion of pent up rage waiting to happen, but an unexpected reunion in prison with his father gives O’Connell a huge amount to explore. This was his first real lead film role and he’s magnetic for the entire run-time in this unflinching look at life on the inside.
He also then took the lead role in one of the year’s most underrated and underseen films, the Yann Demange thriller ’71 set in the troubles in Northern Ireland. Here, although he’s got top billing once again it’s the supporting cast that get to deliver much of the theatrics, and O’Connell’s requirement is to be calm and level headed after he’s separated from his unit on the wrong side of the lines. Demange maintains tension throughout, and it’s to O’Connell’s credit that you care about his plight despite being little to go on in terms of backstory.
As a sign of things to come, O’Connell also appeared as Calisto in the bigger budget 300: Rise Of An Empire, but it’s at the end of the year where he’s really begun to make a name for himself in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. Somehow, despite having a script with contributions from the Coen brothers and cinematography from Roger Deakins, Jolie has crafted something which renders a remarkable story somewhat ordinary, and it would have been a complete washout had it not been for O’Connell’s performance. As the stocky Italian-American Olympic runner who ends up in a Japanese POW camp, O’Connell proves he’s got what it takes to be an (admittedly unconventional) leading man, but he also delivers the film’s only real emotional beats in the last half hour.
Frankly, anyone who can get Angelina Jolie to deliver that classic East Midlands greeting of “ay up, me duck” in public deserves some form of recognition, but O’Connell looks to be a star in the making and 2014 is very much the year he’s arrived in earnest.
Man Of The Year Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Godzilla, The Monuments Men, The Imitation Game, Unbroken)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave, Frank, X-Men: Days Of Future Past)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Interstellar)
Ben Mendelsohn (Starred Up, Exodus: Gods And Kings, Black Sea)
Woman Of The Year 2014 is Scarlett Johansson
I’ve always been very much someone who could take it or leave it as far as Scarlett Johansson’s concerned. She came into my cinematic consciousness from an unconventional angle, with that infamous opening shot of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation in 2002. She’d been around for a while before that, both on TV and most notably in Ghost World from the previous year, but in the years that followed her success with roles was at best mixed. Despite working with the likes of Woody Allen (Match Point), Christopher Nolan (The Prestige) and, ahem, Michael Bay (The Island), her brushes with the acting awards categories had started to recede into the distance – as well as Match Point and Lost In Translation, she received Golden Globe nominations for A Love Song For Bobby Long and The Girl With The Pearl Earring, but all were prior to 2006 – and it’s only really been this year that she’s reminded people of just how good an actress she is.
Sure, she’s been appearing in Marvel films as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow since 2008’s Iron Man 2, but it was only in this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier that she truly came into the role, appearing both an effective foil for Chris Evans’ previously uptight Captain American and also being able to stand her ground in the drama stakes, rather than being lost in the mêlée of The Avengers. She also proved she’s still got her action movie chops with the uneven Lucy from Luc Besson, yet for all the film’s issues believing in Johansson as a super-brained genius wasn’t one of them. And she proved that she’s got charisma to spare with a brief appearance in Jon Favreau’s food lovers’ delight Chef.
But of her two biggest successes this year, she wasn’t even on screen for one of them. Playing the voice of an AI in Her, she has a remarkable and totally convincing chemistry with her co-star Joaquim Phoenix, despite the two never being on screen together. Samantha Morton was originally cast in the role, but it was only when Steven Soderbergh was brought in to help manage the film down from a two and a half hour first cut that writer / director Spike Jonze began to realise that what he’d created with Morton didn’t work; spending four months working with Johansson provided what was missing for the role, and so a proportion of the film’s success has to be credited to her for coming in at that late stage and still making it work.
If that performance was memorable, it still wasn’t her best work of 2014; that came in Jonathan Glazer’s mindworm Under The Skin. Portraying a cold and distant alien might not seem like much of an acting challenge, but almost everything Johansson does in the film grabs your attention in the right way. Driving round Glasgow in a black wig with an English accent, she became unrecognisable to the real men she was picking up, and her performance is free of clutter or mannerisms and perfectly captures how an extraterrestrial visitor might struggle to comprehend the vagaries of our very human existence.
I’ve never been Johansson’s biggest fan, but her string of consistent, high quality performances this year has put me down firmly as a fan. Here’s hoping she can now find the roles to carry that momentum forward.
Woman Of The Year Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her, Big Eyes)
Keira Knightley (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Begin Again, Say When, The Imitation Game)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Serena, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1)
Mia Wasikowska (Only Lovers Left Alive, Tracks, The Double, Maps To The Stars)
We have arrived at the breakdown of actors and actresses in my review of the year, and this year more than ever there seem to be great performances on this list that have been in the service of less than stellar films. When you look at the big award nominations, the acting awards and the best picture nominations aren’t normally too far removed from each other, but in my list this year at most fifteen of these performances will be in films that feature in the final top 40.
Of course, there’s no reason why good actors shouldn’t appear in average, or even bad, films but in most cases on this list it’s the actors being let down by their scripts. I can’t think of many instances of great scripts being played out by bad actors, so clearly it’s easier to get your film funded with a decent name or two attached than it is to get the script right first. There isn’t as much talk as there used to be about actors’ salaries these days, but few of the names on this list will be commanding top dollar anyway (although two at almost opposite ends of the list will be in Star Wars next year – what odds one of them reappearing for that in twelve months?).
Anyway, usual rules apply: all lengths of performance are considered equally and there is no distinction between actor and actress here. For the record, I have 14 men and 11 women on this year’s list, but in the top 10 it’s 6-4 the other way. And only one person per film; there are two or three instances where this rule has excluded great efforts, but I will endeavour to give them an honourable mention as I go. So here’s my fourth annual list of my favourite 25 performances of the year. In the end I couldn’t pick between Leo and Matthew in The Wolf Of Wall Street, but if this list ran to 26 one of them would probably have been on it. Them’s the breaks.
25. Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Part of what I love about Oscar Isaac is his chameleon-like ability to blend in completely with his surroundings. I wonder how many people would associate him with his role in Drive having seen this? He’s also shown his versatility in The Two Faces Of January in 2014, proving that he’s got charm to spare, but exasperation was his best mood this year. Not only does he fit in perfectly with the ranks of other downtrodden Coen leads, but his musical skills are also brought beautifully to the fore. Someone get this man a moody musical.
24. Uma Thurman – Nymphomaniac, Part 1
She may be on screen for only a few minutes, but Uma Thurman is the best thing in Lars Von Trier’s patience tester (although at least this was one four hour epic we got an interval in this year). I’m sure there’s some wish fulfilment of some embittered soul somewhere in that performance, but Thurman lights up the screen in a thoroughly entertaining cameo. Also, I don’t have awards for least best acting, but if I did a strong contender would be someone in this film whose name rhymes with Friar LeSmurf.
23. Haluk Bilginer – Winter Sleep
By contrast, this three hour and ten minute latest from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is intermission free, and consists greatly of people talking calmly to each other in dark rooms. You need someone who’s going to keep your attention for that to work, and Bilginer’s sheer magnetism does just that, even allowing for his world-weariness that lays over the top. A mention must also go to his on-screen wife Melisa Sözen who has a couple of very powerful scenes in the last half hour.
22. Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
To think that there were the usual silly doubts when the Hunger Games franchise began that Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t right for Katniss; too old, dyeing her hair, wrong star sign, that sort of thing. While the casting is generally stellar this just wouldn’t have worked as a franchise without Lawrence, and to her credit she’s given the same level of committed performance in both her blockbuster roles this year that she has to her more serious endeavours. It’s great to see someone who, in behind the scenes footage, clearly has such a love for her craft and that passion is on screen for all to see.
21. Brendan Gleeson – Calvary
Gleeson has now teamed up twice with John Michael McDonogh and the results have been great both times. While Brendan Gleeson was sardonic and dismissive in The Guard, here he’s required to give a different level of performance and in both films Gleeson’s performance has crucially underpinned the overall tone. McDonogh isn’t afraid to deal with weighty themes and what humour there is happens to be dry as a bone and black as a starless night but, for all his sins and those of his church, you still find yourself rooting for this non-stereotypical priest. It would be remiss of me not to mention Kelly Reilly as his daughter who’s also putting in a performance as good as anything she’s done.
20. Pierre Deladonchamps – Stranger By The Lake
I could make cheap jokes about Deladonchamps’ performance being stripped bare – and if you want cheap jokes, you’ve normally come to the right place – but Stranger By The Lake pulls off the difficult balancing act of being both a taut Hitckcockian thriller and an honest assessment of male frailty and psychology. Leave your modesty at the door and you’ll be firmly gripped (stop it) by a performance which is one of the most unhindered of the year, regardless of the state of dress of many of the participants.
19. Jack O’Connell – Starred Up
It’s been a great year for Jack O’Connell but his best role may also have been his first, the British prison drama which skipped around the clichés to feel fresh and relevant. O’Connell has a set of facial expressions well suited to defiance and a demeanour to match, but he’s shown in all of his performances this year that he can do subtle in spades and his fractious relationship with estranged father Ben Mendelssohn gives both actors plenty to work with. With two Hollywood roles under his belt this year already, expect O’Connell to be a star of the future.
18. Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
It’s difficult to pick a winner from the performance stakes in Boyhood, but possibly thanks to his experience in the Before trilogy it was Ethan Hawke that most caught my eye. Over the twelve year span of the film his character goes through as much of an evolution as anyone, from cocksure and unreliable to steady and dependable, but he does so in believable steps; that can have been no easy feat considering the nature of the filming process. The four leads are all great, so apologies to Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater and especially Patricia Arquette that I only pick one performance per film.
17. Berenice Bejo – The Past
I’ve become a real fan of Asghar Farhadi’s work over the past few years, and while The Past didn’t quite hit the heights of A Separation or About Elly, it wasn’t far off at all. This was the first time he’s worked with such an international cast but this felt comfortably and with deep familiarity a Farhadi film, and Bejo proved that she’s not just a silent face with a performance the polar opposite of her appearance in The Artist. For some reason this film seemed to slip below the awards radar, but Bejo’s performance is up there with anything in Farhadi’s back catalogue.
16. Juliette Binoche – Camille Claudel 1915
I struggled greatly with parts of this biopic of the troubled artist, but that shouldn’t take away from Juliette Binoche’s work as the titular artist. Many of my problems with the film relate to later stretches when the film becomes dry and airless while searching for resolution, but coincidentally this is also when Binoche happens to be off screen. It would be easy to overdo the theatricality of a role dealing with mental illness, but to Binoche’s great credit she’s far more astute than that. A shame, then, that the film isn’t quite the equal of what she brings to it.
15. Bill Murray – St. Vincent
The biggest problem with St. Vincent as a film is that it doesn’t have any gear shifts: it has a consistent, level tone despite the extreme ups and downs endured by its characters when it would be better suited with an ability to swing more closely to the comedic and dramatic aspects of its script. That’s highlighted in Bill Murray’s performance, which defines irascible but also asks a lot of Murray with a huge back story and physical afflictions as the story progresses. It’s nice to see Melissa McCarthy dialling back her performance to something simple and honest, but everyone else is in Bill Murray’s shadow here.
14. Tom Hardy – Locke
While there was a certain amount of fun from playing guess the phone voice (I’d repeatedly convinced myself that Andrew Scott was actually Chris O’Dowd), Steven Knight’s film is little more than a conceit which doesn’t necessarily serve Tom Hardy’s performance as well as it might. I’m also prepared to overlook the fact that I wasn’t 100% sold by Hardy’s accent, which is generally reliable but no more, in light of how much emotion he generates with so little acting backlift. He was also the best thing in Dennis Lehane scripted drama The Drop later in the year, mildly memorable for being James Gandolfini’s last film.
13. Gugu Mbatha-Raw – Belle
I got into a debate on Bums On Seats, the community radio show I lend my voice to, about the merits of Belle; I turned out to be the lone positive voice. I’m not going to claim that it was a masterpiece but I stand by its merits, and one of its many was the performance of relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw (hitherto known only to me as Martha’s sister Tish from the third modern season of Doctor Who). There’s plenty of solid support around but Mbatha-Raw carries the dramatic weight of the film and deftly handles both period romance and the film’s dalliances with weightier issues.
12. Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
I think that The Imitation Game as a film has a lot of problems, but the acting isn’t one of them. The likes of Mark Strong and Charles Dance do what Mark Strong and Charles Dance generally do best, but the stand-outs are Keira Knightley – even if she is saddled with the poshest accent in acting history – and Benedict Cumberbatch. The man with the most mocked name in showbusiness puts yet another spin on his collection of damaged geniuses and without him, the film would have been a hollow shell. I just hope he manages to get the right balance of Hollywood and Britain moving forward, as both Star Trek and Marvel have already got their claws into him for big franchise roles.
11. Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Seriously, why did no one think to put Ralph Fiennes and Wes Anderson together earlier? Delivering some of the most delicious dialogue from any script this year, Fiennes spews out quotable lines with effortless elegance but his performance ranges through a variety of emotions. Ipswich’s finest export since Cardinal Wolsey has been meticulous and sharply calibrated in both his acting and directing for two decades, but he’s achieved most of his best work in dramatic roles. In Bruges might be the closest he’s come to anything like this before, and that’s still a mile off (and no-one who’s ever seen him opposite Uma Thurman in The Avengers will ever forget his discomfort), but he was such a total fit for the Anderson universe that we can but pray it’s not their only collaboration.
10. Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
There’s a myth about the curse of the Bond girl, when in reality for every woman who’s proven herself as a love interest opposite Bond but then gone onto anonymity there’s just as many for whom it’s been but a footnote on an impressive CV. Evidence would suggest Rosamund Pike is likely to fall into the latter category, but her role in Pierce Brosnan’s swansong may have come slightly too early in her career; she’s matured in smaller roles in the likes of Made In Dagenham and The World’s End, but I suspect her role as the object of Ben Affleck’s attention in David Fincher’s trashy delight will one day be seen as career defining. Somehow, despite being cast in a role where she’s consigned to flashbacks before the main narrative has even started, she walks in and waltzes off with the whole film.
9. Ben Whishaw – Lilting
Lilting is very much a film of actors and performances rather than strong direction, but I have a lot of time for any film prepared to cast Peter Bowles. Ben Whishaw has been quietly going around his business for a few years now, and having impressed greatly in Cloud Atlas and nabbed a role to pay the bills for a few years yet as Bond’s new Q he’s now started to find leading roles that show off his talents. Here he played the troubled man attempting to dealing with the grieving mother of his deceased parter beautifully, an understated role that still demanded Whishaw to have a lot going on just beneath the surface. He capped a good year with a voice turn as a positively perfect Paddington.
8. Kristen Wiig – The Skeleton Twins
Here’s a trivia question for your next film quiz: what connects Morwenna Banks, Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr., Jimmy Fallon, Christopher Guest, Randy Quaid, Chris Rock and Pamela Stevenson? They’re all alumni of the American comedy institution Saturday Night Live, and while you might at first think of the likes of Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray or Eddie Murphy when you think of SNL, the latest generation are showing they are equally adept at both comedy and drama. The former SNL pairing of Wiig and Bill Hader are by turns heartbreaking and charismatic here, but it’s Wiig as the sister who seems stuck in a cycle of perpetually making poor life choices that makes the greatest impression.
7. Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
I’ve seen two Dardennes brothers films now and for some reason neither has quite gelled with me in the way they seem to have taken others. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I find myself drawn to the deficiencies in their social realism, rather than being taken in by the performances and storytelling. Nonetheless, former Movie Evangelist Performance Of The Year winner and current Movie Evangelist ideal woman Marion Cotillard defies both any shortcomings in Two Days, One Night’s script and also rises above my slightly awkward attempts at stalkerish flattery with yet another winning performance that the rest of the film is constructed around.
6. Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
I have a lot of time for Jake Gyllenhaal, ever since he, Dennis Quaid and Emmy Rossum made The Day After Tomorrow far more watchable than it had any right to be. Why someone who has Donnie Darko, Zodiac, Source Code, Prisoners and Brokeback Mountain on his CV isn’t thought of as one of the best actors of his generation continues to mystify me, but with a mesmeric performance as the manipulative, greasy Leo Bloom Gyllenhaal is getting due attention for the first time since his partnership with Heath Ledger all those years ago. While he was slightly overshadowed even then, here Gyllenhaal dominates ever scene he’s in, which I think is just about all of them.
5. Joaquim Phoenix – Her
I have a strange and unhealthy fascination with Space Camp, the Eighties Space Shuttle film that’s a reductive mix of Apollo 13 and The Goonies which features a young Phoenix alongside Steven Spielberg’s wife and Marty McFly’s mum. It’s as an adult that the former Leaf Phoenix has impressed, from Gladiator through Walk The Line to The Master, yet in Her it’s ironically a childlike innocence that makes his performance so heartfelt and convincing. Never for one moment do we as an audience doubt or question his commitment to Scarlett Johansson’s AI, all the more impressive an achievement given that Johansson recorded her performance after the fact (it was Samantha Morton on set playing opposite Phoenix). I’m already looking forward to Phoenix’s reunion with Paul Thomas Anderson next month in Inherent Vice.
4. Essie Davis – The Babadook
The only woman who ever made a name for herself in a horror movie might have been Linda Blair. The director who drew out her most famous performance then this year rated The Babadook as the most terrifying film he’d ever seen, and that’s due large part to the anchoring performance given by Essie Davis in the lead role. Selling both the concept and her own gradual mental disintegration, Davis is as key to the success of The Babadook’s icy grip as the reedy-voiced monster. Up to now, the biggest credit Davis had received was probably in the two dire Matrix sequels, but hopefully her performance here will be a stepping stone to more lead roles.
3. Scarlett Johansson – Under The Skin
Easy to play an emotionless alien struggling to come to terms with the human condition? I’m sorry, I’ll have none of that. The contrast in the opening scenes where we see the original form taken over by Johansson show the contrast clearly, and I’ve been saving up the word fearless for this point in the countdown as Scarlett commits herself to the role with gusto. That’s even before that you consider she was actually out in a wig, cruising the streets of Glasgow with an impeccable English accent, and Under The Skin wouldn’t be featuring at the top of quite so many end of year lists without her. I’ve not always been a fan of Scarlett – The Prestige was my favourite film of the Noughties despite her rather than because of her – but consider me a convert off the back of this.
2. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years A Slave
If you’re looking to hand out acting recognition for Steve McQueen’s devastating Best Picture winner, it’s difficult to know where to really start. But you should finish either with Michael Fassbender’s horrific plantation owner, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s dignified slave enduring a sort of reverse emancipation or Lupita Nyong’o’s gut-wrenching performance that earned her an Oscar, a job in Star Wars and a role as the Face Of Lancôme. In researching this list I watched two brief, thirty second clips of this Mexican-Kenyan actress’ performance and I was nearly in tears again, almost a full year after having last seen the film in full. I’m planning to watch the film again at some point this week, so will be off to bulk buy soft tissues shortly after completing this post.
1. Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner
But there was one performance this year that edged out all the others, a performance that bore the weight beautifully of the two and a half hour film constructed around it and one which will define the image of one of our nation’s greatest painters in the mind of a generation. I would absolutely love it if the award Spall picked up for this at Cannes turned out not to be the biggest prize that he’ll store in his trophy cabinet for this performance, but whatever the outcome of awards season Spall grabbed his chance in the limelight with both hands and created a character that felt as truly human as anyone we’ve seen on screen this year.
His Turner isn’t a misunderstood genius, merely an honest, humble man with an exceptional talent and an intolerance for family. Spall has long been a staple of both Mike Leigh films and British television and film in general, and his career as a character actor seemed in hindsight to be building to this moment. His characters aren’t always capturing huge amounts of screen time but so often it’s Spall’s performances that are the most memorable of the works he’s in. Given full rein to interpret Joseph Mallard William Turner his tics and mannerisms, his gutteral grunts and frustrated groanings might be what play out in the award season clips, but this is a full bodied performance that sees Spall at his very best and made Mr. Turner one of the best British films of the year. Timothy Spall, I salute you and am delighted to declare your performance my favourite of cinema in 2014.
The Top 25 Performances Of 2013 WINNER – Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
The Top 25 Performances Of 2012 WINNER – Marion Cotillard, Rust And Bone
The Top 25 Performances Of 2011 WINNER – Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur
The Pitch: Jon’s Addiction.
The Cockney Rhyming Slang Review: Due to the graphic and adult nature of the content of this film and my desire to make this as much of a PG (or 12A) blog as possible, I have replaced the stronger terms in this review with Cockney Rhyming Slang. Most of the translations are courtesy of whoohoo.co.uk and londontopia.net.
A friend of mine once asked me why being called a merchant banker was an insult. His reasoning was that everyone does it, so why would anyone be offended to be called one? Maybe there’s still a social stigma to anyone who prefers merchant banking to good, old fashioned Posh ‘N’ Becks, possibly some deep seated religious conscience. Strictly speaking, there’s nowhere in the Bible that condemns merchant banking, but it does condemn certain sexual practices, and (especially for men) there’s an association between merchant banking and Frankie Vaughn, as many men feel the need for a bit of Frankie to get themselves in the right state of Chinese Blind. It’s easy to take the moral high ground and to Barnaby Rudge those who do, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first film for the Stevie Nicks attempts to understand what makes a young man want to play with his Uncle Silly while watching Frankie.
As well as directing Gordon-Levitt is the la-di-da of his own film, the Jon of the title, a young man who’s disenchanted with the physical nature of his physical relationship with twist’n’twirls. He’s in the rub-a-dub every night with a different twist, but ending up in Uncle Ned with them is never as satisfying as the time on his own with his pistol and shooter. When he meets Scarlett Johanssen he tries to be a better old pot and pan, but he’s soon falling into the same old patterns, patterns repeated in his weekly confession at the left in the lurch. He gets his strong New York passions from his dad Tony Danza, while his sock and blister Brie Larson sits silently in judgement. The only person who truly seems to understand him is fellow student Julianne Moore, a few donkey’s ears older than JGL and the only one who doesn’t seem to sit in judgement.
Gordon-Levitt follows the typical path for this kind of jackanory, surrounding his Jon with other alpha males, but the Frankie remains resolutely off the Betty Grable when it comes to getting under the true nature of his Barney Rubbles. While he makes some interesting decisions as a director, the script is generic and Jon starts out as little more than a caricature. He’s a Max Factor of credit and gradually shades in Jon with levels of detail, but it’s the performance more than the storytelling that makes Jon feel real. It’s not helped by Scarlett Johansson, who also seems to act in one too many stereotypes and it’s difficult to orange peel anything much for either of them. It’s only when Julianne Moore shows her Chevy Chase that Don Jon starts to generate any kind of depth or satisfying narrative arc.
So Don Jon is an odd hybrid, of an exploration of onanistic pleasures, a coming of age story and an unusual turtle dove story. It doesn’t have anything profound to say about merchant banking, Frankie Vaughn or Posh ‘n‘ Becks but it does at least see the other aspects of its story through to a reasonable conclusion. It’s a mixed start to JGL’s directorial career, and you can see what he was aiming for to a point, but it’s all a touch predictable and safe, which is quite an achievement for such potentially offensive subject matter. Let’s hope that this is the start of a long career : I Adam and Eve that young Joe’s got plenty of talent but next time I hope, with no small sense of irony, he shows slightly more orchestra stalls.
Why see it at the cinema: If you didn’t feel you got enough cinema discomfort from watching Blue Is The Warmest Color, here’s an ideal opportunity to test your tolerance for sitting in a room full of strangers while topics not normally discussed in polite conversation are brought up repeatedly.
What about the rating: Rated 18 for strong sex and sex references. Also has a tiny bit of bad language and some joint smoking, but even so it’s far from the most extreme 18 rated film I’ve seen and there’s very little dwelling on the material at hand.
My cinema experience: Having missed this at my local Cineworld, I ventured further afield to catch both this and Captain Phillips at the Cineworld in Braintree. A good job I was only seeing two films, as the car park appears to have a six hour limit (so no seeing seven films in a day here). It appears to be a newer Cineworld, as the seats were still comfortable and I managed to find plenty of legroom in both screens, and there were no sound or vision issues in either film. The only slight downer was that I was actually sold a ticket for Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa instead of Don Jon, so had a mad dash to the concessions desk after Captain Phillips to find someone to tell me which screen I was actually supposed to be in.
The Score: 6/10
The Review: Good evening. I have for you tonight a devious little entertainment, which will shock and surprise you in ways you weren’t expecting. It’s the story of a man who took delight in the more unpleasant side of life and the relationship between men and women, and how the story of a serial killer tortured him to the point of madness. It’s a tale of love, hate, commitment and betrayal, but you’ll be truly terrified by the leading man and what he’s capable of; or should I say, what he’s not capable of? You might think you’ve heard this story before, even very recently, and you probably have, but what’s more likely to keep you guessing than a story that plays out exactly as you think it will? If you know your history, especially your history of Psychos, then you may think that you know the ending, where a film becomes highly successful but also highly notorious, and with a legacy of not only most mainstream horror movies produced since, but also smaller moments which would prove pivotal. But of course, you don’t know this story at all.
Right, enough of the double talk, Hitchcock himself wouldn’t have been a fan of such obfuscation. This is a man that made a trailer for Psycho by walking round the set and all but giving away the main plot points in every location, never spoiling but teasing to the point of genius. This is a man who was extremely aware of not only his own self-image but the need for good marketing to support a good product, a combination never more completely brought together than in the marketing and production of Psycho, certainly not his best film but perhaps his most notorious (and from a man that made Notorious, that’s no mean feat). This is a man who looks nothing like Anthony Hopkins in a fat suit doing an intermittent accent, but at least they got the infamous silhouette correct; George Clooney looks about as much like the real Alma Reville as Helen Mirren does. But it’s a man who would, I’m sure, not have approved of the straightforward nature and simple moralising of his own biopic; we should maybe just be thankful that it’s not the same hatchet job that the BBC’s TV movie The Girl turned out to be just a couple of months earlier.
So what works? Taken as a drama on its own terms, and putting aside any association with its subject matter, Hitchcock is passably interesting as an effective period piece or a TV movie of the week. It might be cookie-cutter drama with simple characters, but it has a timeless quality and uses simple themes well. Some of the minor casting is also eerily effective, with James D’Arcy an uncanny double of Anthony Perkins and Scarlett Johansson actually not a million miles away from Janet Leigh, at least in comparison to the leads. The likes of Danny Huston also turn up and do what they do best in less familiar roles. And again, if you disassociate yourself from the source material, the performances of Hopkins and Mirren aren’t bad, they’re just not particularly representative of their real life counterparts in either appearance, mannerism or character from all of the available evidence.
That’s balanced out by the list of what doesn’t work, and it’s not a short list. On top of the failure of Hopkins and Mirren to inhabit their real life counterparts, its attempts to act as a primer on the making of Psycho are muddied at best, and some moments – such as when Hitch and “Bernie” Herrmann are discussing the merits of scoring the key shower scene or leaving it silent – simply don’t work in the context of the drama. Worse still, there’s a consistent device where Hitch interacts with Ed Gein, real life killer on whose exploits Psych was based, which not only undercuts matters further but implies consequences of screen violence that patently aren’t true, selling Hitchcock’s real life’s intentions painfully short. Many of the supporting characters are cyphers and plot devices, and when it’s all over it’s not particularly clear what it was trying to achieve, a feat clearly at odds with how Hitch constructed his own pointed narratives. Even the opening and closing appearances of Hitch talking to camera, in the manner of the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” TV Series with their famous Gounoud theme music playing into Danny Elfman’s anonymous score, are more jovial than the dry intros of the master himself in that series. It would seem the best way to learn about Psycho, and the power of cinema itself, is just to rewatch Psycho. It will certainly be, if you’re much like me, a lot more enjoyable. Until the next time, good night.
Why see it at the cinema: The real Hitch would no doubt approve of you being summoned to the cinema, it’s just a shame that what’s been served up is so utterly lacking in its own cinematic aspirations.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate horror, threat and sex references. Most of the material that made Psycho a 15 rating is merely hinted at here, but it’s not one I’d be taking younger children to.
My cinema experience: A weekday afternoon at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds, and a largely uneventful screening passed off among a small audience. Not for the first time at Bury, the curtains which wound back before the start of the main feature sounded like they could do with a good oiling. Remind me and next time I’ll bring the WD40.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Hideous. Five full length trailers, adverts and a host of PSAs (including the one from Hitchcock itself with good ol’ Hitch advising you to turn off your mobiles) meaning that the BBFC title card came up for the start of the film thirty-one minutes after the advertised start time.
The Score: 5/10