Director – Bill Condon
Cast – Liam Neesom, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgard, Chris O’Donnell, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Dylan Baker
Dr. Alfred Kinsey (played here by Liam Neesom) was a famous (at the time, infamous) researcher who made the study of human sexuality his life’s work,gaining prominence in the 1940’s and 1950’s. This dedication put him at odds with the morality of the time, and at times with his wife and colleagues. While creating his famous database of human sexuality, he explores the difference between love and sex, friendship and love, and fights for open-mindedness in American culture. Kinsey is his story.
Kinsey is a very well presented movie with fine acting. Laura Linney (who plays Kinsey’s wife) was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and personally I think Neesom should have been as well. There are many fine actors in supporting roles, from Timothy Hutton to John Lithgow, and Oliver Platt to Tim Curry.
The movie is perhaps best described as “pleasant”. Despite dealing with fairly controversial topics even for today (such as child molestation) the movie is quiet and reserved, much like Neesom’s calm and measured (though slightly naive) portrayal of the doctor. Nothing too horrible really happens here. (I must note that this is not a criticism. It is refreshing to have a movie dwell on the intellectual rather than the emotional.) Kinsey has an affair with a male associate (Peter Sarsgard) and tells his wife about it. They calmly agree that the best way to restore balance is for her to sleep with Sarsgard as well. This happens, and Kinsey just gives us a strange little absent look, as if wondering if he should feel something, or perhaps what it is that he is feeling. Perhaps he agreed to the experiment for its own sake, as after all, it was an oppurtunity for an experiment and therefore should be investigated.
In a lesser movie this event would have dramatised to within an inch of its life; they would have almost split up, people would have been slapping each other, etc. Instead the situation is dealt with calmly and with great thought. That is the essence of this movie I think, and reflects Kinsey himself. The doctor (at least as he is shown here) calmly goes about investigating the emotional complexities of human life, and the movie does the same.
Kinsey’s dedication to his research, however unpopular it may have been, is at the heart of the movie. The press misses no opportunity to mock him (despite his books having become best sellers, or perhaps because of it), and his funders constantly try to hold him back from making judgements as a result of his research. Still Kinsey finds it hard to resist a jab or two at what he sees as moral prudes, and he finds himself taking his research and transplanting into the realm of morals. “If everyone sins, then no-one sins!” he proclaims. In the end we have no choice but to see his point.
Kinsey is a solid film anchored by a fine performance from Liam Neesom. It is possible that without Neesom’s strength and whimsical vitality the movie would not have been as strong, as the material can be a bit dry at times. However an excellent supporting cast and steady direction keep Kinsey from sinking below the level of the average biopic. It may not challenge us as such, but this movie is strong entertainment. Recommended.
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Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman REVIEW
Director – Adrian Shergold
Cast – Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson, Eddie Marsan, Tobias Menzies
Timothy Spall is one of those actors who you can’t help but love. He mainly gets bit parts in films where a chubby, funny looking English guy is called for (Sweeney Todd, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Last Samauri, etc), but his talent (and his odd look) have always kept him high on the list of prolific English actors. This film, Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, relies hugely on his talents, and he is a large part of why it succeeds.
The movie deals with Albert Pierrepoint, a hangman in England in the 30’s to 50’s (despite the title, not the last hangman in England.) He took great pride in his work, making sure to use the right amount of rope for the body to hang correctly. He kept this side job secret (he worked full-time as a grocery delivery man), as he found that anonymity made it easier to “leave his job at the doormat” so to speak. He was proud of his professionalism, his quick executions, and his care of the body afterwards. In fact he was a proud man in general. Not proud in the brash, egotistical sense, but in the quiet, reserved, English sort of way.
The best part of Spall’s performance is the way in which he demonstrates the difference between Pierrepoint the executioner and Pierrepoint the man. The man is bubbly, friendly, and caring. The executioner is reserved, quiet, and stern. Spall delivers a masterclass in subtle but distinct characterization. What is most amazing is that we understand and appreciate both sides of his personality.
Any discussion of the movie would be remiss without mentioning Eddie Marsan. He plays an acquaintance of Pierrepoint’s who comes to play a large part in the film. Some have said that his subplot is contrived, and while I will not ruin it for those who haven’t seen the film, I will say that his story did indeed happen, which goes to show that fact is indeed stranger than fiction.
The latter part of the movie deals with the controversy surrounding capital punishment, and Pierrepoint’s reversal of his stand on the matter. While it does do this, it does not raise it to the level of an issue film, but deals with the issues as seen through the eyes of Pierrepoint and his experiences hanging prisoners in England, and even hanging Nazi’s in Germany after the Nuremberg trials. In other words, we don’t think about the issues during the film (it definitely prompts us to think about the issues afterwards), but we think about Pierrepoint’s reaction to the issues. This is the mark of a succesful biopic, I think.
Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman is a quiet, well acted, and deeply moving character study. There are a couple of issues with story structure that one could quibble over, but the film is so moving and the acting done with such perfection that we can not help but be swept right along with the whole thing. I loved this movie, and even though it is not well-known, I hope others will seek it out. It is a remarkably rewarding experience.
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Rescue Dawn REVIEW
Director – Werner Herzog
Cast – Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Teerawat Mulvilai, Kriangsak Ming-olo
Rescue Dawn is a fairly decent little survival story from director Werner Herzog. It is based on the true story of Dieter Dengler, a US Navy pilot who crash-lands on his first mission in Laos (as a part of the Vietnam War) and is captured and put in a POW camp. The bulk of the film concerns his plans and finally an attempt to escape. Christian Bale stars as Dengler, and, despite Herzog’s best efforts, the movie comes dangerously close to becoming just another movie where Bale adopts an American accent and drops a lot of weight. The story,while told with sincerity and even some humour, frankly isn’t that different from most POW movies (The Great Escape, etc).
The character of Dengler is optimistic and quite a bit cheerful, even in the worst of circumstances. He firmly believes that he will be able to escape the POW camp and make his way through the jungle. The problem is that we believe him, and thus we feel no real sense of danger when he is in the wilderness fighting to survive or even when sneaking up on his guards after stealing their guns. For example, when Dengler and his friend are escaping on a raft they hear a waterfall. They get quite close to it, finally decide to jump off the raft, and they swim to shore. Cut to the waterfall thundering away as the camera pans down its full length. “Look what could have happened!” Yes, it could have. But we should have been saying “O my God, just think of what could happen!” before we are shown the falls. Instead we just see them doggy-paddling to the shore and congratulating themselves. The escape sequence is essentially just many little vignettes of such scenes.
What Rescue Dawn may lack in urgency and uniqueness it picks up in terms of its visual style and in its depiction of general minutiae of camp life and living in the jungle. We do believe that the characters are going through what they are depicting, mainly because in general they are. The leads all lost between 55 and 35 pounds each, and Christian Bale infamously eats live maggots in one scene.
It is good that the actors had such dedication to the story, but it is unfortunate that the story lets them down considerably. Everything seems taken from the Director’s Guidebook to POW Movies, from the plans to escape and the tension among the prisoners, to the brutal POW guard and the eventual rescue. Herzog really doesn’t do enough to spice these aspects up either, and his earnest depiction of the story can sometimes come across as pandering. Thankfully his long time cinematographer, Peter Zeitlenger, gives us a wonderful view of the jungle, and the realistic camera style helps keep the appropriate tone.
Rescue Dawn gets past its rather average story by the strong dedication of the cast to their characters. All the characters are fully formed (except of course, the “bad guys”, the POW guards), and the cinematography is quite pretty. However the movie feels like it could have been directed by anyone and written by anyone. Werner Herzog’s involvement seems strange, as he is known for rather personal and ambitious movies. This is neither, and with almost no tension created, it is noticeably dry. It is worth a watch for the cast, but not too much else unfortunately.
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Director – David Mamet
Cast – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Emily Mortimer, Tim Allen, Alice Braga
Redbelt is one of those martial movies which preaches respect, a code of honor, and peaceful solutions, and then climaxes with the main character beating the shit out of someone. Except in this movie after Ejiofor (playing Mike Terry, a Jiu Jitsu black belt) beats the shit out of his opponent (offstage, in the aisle to the arena, in a fight he started) the grand master of Jui Jitsu comes over to him and awards him with a red belt on the spot. This left me… well, perplexed. Actually, I yelled out “What the hell.” Thankfully I saw it at home on DVD, not in a theater.
Actually, come to think of it I bought it for a dollar. So thank God I didn’t spend much money on it.
To get to this point (where Mike beats up several security guards to start a fight and win the heart of a grandmaster), we have to sit through an hour and a half of coincidence, manipulation, and contrivance. The plot is a twisted mess of coincidences that all add up (allegedly) to Mike’s inner turmoil. Mamet (who wrote and directed the movie) throws in everything against Mike; he is faced with a desperate wife, debts piling up, a dishonest and greedy attorney, a corporation stealing Mike’s tournament handicap idea, a friend and pupil committing suicide (seemingly just because the plot required him to leave a bitchy widow)… it just doesn’t stop. We then spend most of the movie waiting for something, anything, to go somewhere.
Nothing does, until it is suggested to Mike that he can end all of his problems by entering a huge Mixed Martial Arts tournament. He does so. That’s the story pretty much. I’d say sweet and simple, but it wasn’t really sweet…
The script, written by such a respected writer as David Mamet, comes across as hackneyed and boring. It turns out that Mamet had been training in Jiu Jitsu for several years before making the movie, and had been suggesting to friends they should do a “Jiu Jitsu movie” for ages. This comes across as a bit egotistical, and would explain the lackluster nature of the whole thing.
Redbelt comes across as not much more than a vanity project. It is overly complicated and full of contrived plot turns that are reminiscent of soap operas. Chiwetel Ejiofor is probably the only person to come out of this unscathed. His characterization is practically the only thing that keeps the movie going. Some of the other actors are just awful. Tim Allen skated through his role, and Ricky Jay sounds like a high school drama student. This is the great Mamet???
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