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Mary Poppins Returns

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There is a moment in Mary Poppins Returns when the titular magical nanny, played with sparkling brilliance by Emily Blunt, looks directly into the camera before plunging backwards into a bathtub. This look to camera is an acknowledgement of audience expectations, that manages to be completely uncynical or overly knowing. The shot is indicative of Rob Marshall’s superlative sequel to one of the most beloved films of all time, as throughout Mary Poppins Returns, audience’s knowledge of Mary Poppins and the Banks children is acknowledged with postmodern awareness. Despite this acknowledgement, and quite remarkably, the film never slips into parody, or becomes too clever, or loses sight of its central, irresistible charm. Blunt is charm personified as Mary Poppins: from her cut-glass accent to her no-nonsense attitude to the neat curl of her ankles, Blunt’s performance can stand alongside Julie Andrews’ in the pantheon of great performances. Alongside her, Lin Manuel Garcia, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters and Colin Firth, as well as the younger performers Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson, all embody their characters beautifully, blending adult weariness with childlike delight. Not that every moment is happy – grief hangs heavily over the Banks household and the economic context mirrors our contemporary times. Problems of mounting debt and eviction notices are not simply dealt with by snapping fingers or singing, demonstrating the need for hard work, cooperation, compassion and a little bit of luck in the overcoming of obstacles. Nonetheless, at other points, Mary Poppins Returns launches into unadulterated and unashamed fantasy. The aforementioned bathtub scene is a highlight, as is a sequence into a bowl that blends cutting edge digital effects with classic Disney animation. This sequence also combines musical whimsy with real world concerns, rendered through a thrilling chase scene. It serves as a microcosm of the film as a whole: a magnificent amalgamation of styles, genres, themes, tones, nostalgia and innovation. In fact, one might say that it is practically perfect in every way.

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Sicario 2: Soldado

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2015’s Sicario was a coming together of several brilliant talents. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also delivered great scripts with Hell Or High Water and Wind River; director of photography Roger Deakins, who drew closer to his elusive Oscar; the fine acting chops of Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin; the ever improving director Denis Villeneuve, whose subsequent films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 cemented his standing as one of the finest directors working in Hollywood. 2018’s Sicario 2: Soldado reunites Sheridan’s writing with Del Toro’s enigmatic Alejandro and Brolin’s bullish yet principled Matt Graver, but minus the other prominent figures with Stefano Sollima behind the camera and Dariusz Wolski on lensing duties. New cast members include Isabela Moner, Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener and Elijah Rodriguez, their presence expanding the scope of this follow-up. Concerns over terrorism and pirating give the film a more global flavour, although these elements serve more as a distraction than contextualisation. The film’s subject matter feels ripped from the headlines as immigration is a prominent feature, much of the film involving Mexicans illegally entering the United States. While there is (currently) no wall, there are certainly obstacles as well as opportunities for those willing to exploit the desperate. Into this potent mix Matt sends Alejandro, with the goal of starting a war between drug cartels. The film is efficiently put together, with several gripping set pieces including a gruelling gun battle on a deserted desert road. Oddly, the film’s more affecting moments are quiet interchanges, especially between Alejandro and Isabel Reyes (Moner), daughter of a cartel head that Alejandro takes custody of. Their relationship is engaging, while Matt’s clashes with his government superior Cynthia Foards (Keener) and Secretary James Riley (Matthew Modine) highlight the political agenda. Unfortunately, these disparate elements are not cohered, while a subplot involving young Mexican-American Miguel Hernandez (Rodriguez) never convinces. Worse, the film lacks the nihilism of the original, and in its final act there are several moments that could be shockingly cruel, but instead the film loses its nerve and takes the narrative beyond its natural conclusion. The border has many interesting stories, but this is one of the lesser ones.

A Quiet Place

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I have a problem with bare feet. The feel, the sound and the sight cause my hackles to rise. It’s a longstanding phobia that isn’t rational but does make some films uncomfortable viewing. Imagine my dismay, therefore, when it became clear in the opening minutes of A Quiet Place that all the characters were barefoot all the time, as a family move cautiously and silently through a world overrun by vicious predators that prey on the slightest sound. This central conceit of silence shapes the film’s world-building, from the family’s constant use of sign language along with a few moments of spoken dialogue, to their enthralling physical performances where expressions and tiny gestures speak volumes, and the family’s methods of day-to-day life without sound but shot through with constant fear. At times, the silence becomes defeaning before it is overwhelmed with Marco Beltrami’s crashing score that echoes those of Hans Zimmer and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. In addition, there are moments of complete silence that express the perspective of a deaf character, where the superb visual storytelling of writer-director-star John Krasinski is especially apparent as the world is expressed through motifs and clues, rather than expository dialogue or voiceover. The constant threat of attack and the danger of sound leads to nerve-shredding suspense, and the post-civilised world is shown to be merciless from the outset. Some aspects of this world are annoyingly unexplained, such as how the creatures have apparently overrun Earth and how there is still electricity. But these are minor quibbles in what is a gripping and often terrifying ride, and proves that horror is an ideal genre for directors to develop their skills.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

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Recent film adaptations of fairytales are a mixed bag. For every Frozen there is a Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Snow White and the Huntsman was a decent expansion of the Snow White story, turning the ‘fairest of them all’ into a Joan of Arc-esque warrior. The Huntsman: Winter’s War is both a prequel and sequel, explaining how Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) came to where we first see him in the earlier film. The backstory also raises points that are then developed following the events of Snow White and the Hunstman. And that’s about it. While the fantasy world is prettily designed and there are some interesting formulations of the magic of sister sorceresses Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and Freya (Emily Blunt), director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan fails to give the film an epic sweep or battle scenes that are more than functional. On the smaller scale, Eric and Sara (Jessica Chastain) are passably engaging as romantic swashbuckling heroes (despite distracting faux-Scottish accents), but their story similarly lacks heft and impetus. The film swings unevenly between romance, action and comedy, the last of which is largely provided by dwarves Nion (Nick Frost), Gryff (Rob Brydon), Mrs Bronwen (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach). This unevenness is the main problem – the film never seems sure of its agenda and, as a result, the handsome production design and sometimes stirring music has little dramatic meat to add to. The Huntsman: Winter’s War is passably pretty, but ultimately (and not in a good way) leaves the viewer just a little cold.

Sicario

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Sicario is a film about liminality, that which exists in a phase between states. The film’s liminal features includes the geographical borderlands between Mexico and the United States, the people who are somewhere between police and military, and a practice of law enforcement that is at best legally dubious. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) joins a special task force headed by government agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), only to become increasingly disturbed by the missions of Graver as well as the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). The viewer’s discomfort also increases, as director Denis Villeneuve creates some incredibly tense set pieces that often erupt into shocking violence, all delivered unflinchingly so that we feel the impact of bullets and the smack of wet blood. Much of the film’s power can be credited to director of photography Roger Deakins, who previously worked with Villeneuve on Prisoners. The desert landscapes are rendered in exquisite detail that is both beautiful and terrible, both at ground level and in remarkable aerial shots that serve a narrative purpose of showing us drone footage used by the task force, and a stylistic purpose for showing the bleak pitiless of the landscape. A night raid begins with the team descending from a gorgeous sunset into an inky blackness, all within a single, static shot. Multiple camera types convey this sequence, including infra red and night vision as well as normal digital photography, and yet this extra visual detail adds to the confusion and sense of other-worldliness. Similarly, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is menacing and invasive to the point of being oppressive, as the film moves into ever more murky territory. Sicario does not succumb to genre clichés as Prisoners did, debut screenwriter Taylor Sheridan instead maintaining the story’s conceit of liminality as well as its grim tone, as the placement of Alejandro and Macer’s position towards the events she witnesses and participates in remain ambiguous. Whereas crime thrillers of this sort often feature some measure of hope or at least catharsis, here the viewer is left with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, a disturbing glimpse into a harrowing world where cynicism and violence are the only way of life.

Edge of Tomorrow

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The challenge for science fiction film is that viewers have probably seen it before. When I reviewed Looper in 2012, I listed the various films that it references, intentionally or otherwise. A similar familiarity is found in Edge of Tomorrow, which feels like a combination of Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, Source Code and The Matrix, with a bit of Saving Private Ryan, yet still manages to declare its own identity. This is partly due to director Doug Liman blending the comedic and dramatic elements of Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth’s script, making the film’s first act very funny. Secondly, Liman gives the film a fast, urgent, visceral energy, placing the viewer in the midst of the action sequences that are both explosive and suspenseful. Tom Cruise’s star image receives a playful treatment, as his character William Cage is initially a hopeless coward who must learn both courage and comradeship. Emily Blunt makes for a convincing badass, her presence as well as the motley squad Cage is drafted into (especially Bill Paxton) resonating with Aliens. But rather than feeling derivative, Edge of Tomorrow evokes these other films with a sense of fun (without being overly referential), inviting the viewer to share its knowledge and understanding. Just as Cage sees each repetition of the same day afresh, so do we see these familiar elements with fresh enjoyment.

Golden Globe Winners

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It is said that in Hollywood, no one knows anything.  As I am not in Hollywood, how much do I know, especially about what will win at the Golden Globes?

 

Best Motion Picture – Drama

Argo

Django Unchained

Life of Pi

Lincoln

Zero Dark Thirty

I said: Zero Dark Thirty.  The Globes said: Argo.  I have no problem with this as I loved Argo, and am yet to see Zero Dark Thirty.  I also said that if Zero Dark Thirty did not win, the field would go wide open.  It’s open.

 

Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Les Misérables

Moonrise Kingdom

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Silver Linings Playbook

My hunch was Les Misérables, and I was right!  This barnstorming musical was the big winner at the Globes, and perhaps it will continue in this vein.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama

Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln

Richard Gere for Arbitrage

John Hawkes for The Sessions

Joaquin Phoenix for The Master

Denzel Washington for Flight

No surprise that Daniel Day-Lewis picked up this gong, but what is surprising is that no other awards came the way of Lincoln.  Expect Mr Day-Lewis to continue his winning ways.

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama

Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty

Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone

Helen Mirren for Hitchcock

Naomi Watts for The Impossible

Rachel Weisz for The Deep Blue Sea

I bet on Marion Cotillard, and lost (fortunately I did not bet money).  Zero Dark Thirty may not be the film to beat, but Jessica Chastain could be the woman to watch, and I have no problem with that.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy

Jack Black for Bernie

Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook

Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables

Ewan McGregor for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Bill Murray for Hyde Park on Hudson

My leanings were toward Hugh Jackman, and whose wouldn’t be?  No surprise as he picked up this award.  Enjoy it Hugh, you are unlikely to get another.

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy

Emily Blunt for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Judi Dench for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook

Maggie Smith for Quartet

Meryl Streep for Hope Springs

I rated Jennifer Lawrence a strong contender and she walked away with globular gold.  This makes her a prime contender for further awards, so keep your eye on this one (I also have no problem with this).

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Alan Arkin for Argo

Leonardo DiCaprio for Django Unchained

Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master

Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln

Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained

I thought Philip Seymour Hoffman had a good chance here, but instead Christoph Waltz adds another award to his cabinet.  Perhaps his fortune will continue.

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Amy Adams for The Master

Sally Field for Lincoln

Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables

Helen Hunt for The Sessions

Nicole Kidman for The Paperboy

I said overall awards for Les Miserables would be scant, but it was actually the biggest winner at the Globes, Supporting Actress bringing its tally to three.  This spread of awards may be seen again at future ceremonies, with no one film sweeping the board.

 

Best Director – Motion Picture

Ben Affleck for Argo

Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty

Ang Lee for Life of Pi

Steven Spielberg for Lincoln

Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained

I thought this would be either Lee VS Bigelow, but instead it went to Affleck.  Interesting that the HFPA rewarded (probably) the most political film of the bunch here, but from a technical, directorial standard, Argo is masterful.  It is interesting that Affleck has a few awards now, collecting both this and the Critics Choice Award.  He could well get the DGA and the BAFTA as well, but is not up for the Oscar.  Again, the field is pretty open.

 

Best Screenplay – Motion Picture

Argo: Chris Terrio

Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino

Lincoln: Tony Kushner

Silver Linings Playbook: David O. Russell

Zero Dark Thirty: Mark Boal

I anticipated a sweep for Zero Dark Thirty and was so wrong, not expecting much for Django Unchained.  But Tarantino pulls it off, and perhaps he will continue to do so.

 

Best Animated Film

Brave

Frankenweenie

Hotel Transylvania

Rise of the Guardians

Wreck-It Ralph

Having won this, Brave demonstrates the continued dominance of Pixar.  I thought Frankenweenie had a shot, but this is less likely now.

 

Best Foreign Language Film

Amour

Untouchable

Kon-Tiki

A Royal Affair

Rust and Bone

Tentatively, I went with Love, and won with Amour.  Considering the multiple awards Michael Haneke’s film is up for, this was not a surprise.

 

Overall, I got 6 correct predictions out of 12, which isn’t that good.  The Golden Globes tend to be a good indicator for future awards, but when the nominations vary, as they certainly have in the Directing category, predictions become harder.  But then, that makes things more interesting.