Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Movie Review: The Guest/Far From The Madding Crowd (2015)

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It genuinely pains me to do this but, when faced with two films that I can’t really conjure that strong a stance on, I’m almost forced to do it. It’s time for a more slapshod double feature review than I ever expected I would make this month, as I look at The Guest and Far From The Madding Crowd.

The Guest

Dan Stevens has never really struck me as that captivating an actor. I barely even remember him in A Walk Among The Tombstones and he didn’t really rise above the one-joke role he was given for The Cobbler. The only time I can vividly remember a performance of his would be from Night At The Museum 3 as Sir Lancelot, but I’d probably that chalk up to him being pretty much the only interesting character in that entire film. Well, I think I need to pay a bit closer attention to him in future because he is stone-cold fantastic in this film. He goes through every scene he has in the first two acts like he’s too cool for the room and knows it: His poise, his calm demeanour, his ability to handle himself in a fight; he just oozes badass from every pore. Yet, at the same time, it’s very clear that there is something very off about him; the way he acts when he’s on his own in the frame, coupled with the awesome 80’s throwback soundtrack, makes him look like he’s coming up with a dozen ways to kill everyone within a five-mile radius just in case he needs it. Then the third act kicks in and, while maintaining his stoic presence, he delves into the more action film villain side of his character and adds some pants-wetting to the cooing over just how awesome he is.

After seeing two other so-called ‘thrillers’ with similar plots about dangerous house guests this year, it’s genuinely nice to know that there’s a film that actually does it right. For a start, the acting is strong enough to carry out the idea: Outside of Stevens embodying charm for 100 minutes, Maika Munroe from It Follows delivers yet another great performance as the intrigued but cautious Anna and Brendan Meyer works really damn well as the rather nuanced Luke. Luke’s character and his reaction to the truth about David, in a weird way, echoes how the audience is experiencing the events of the film: He doesn’t try and deny that David is a bad guy, but he’s just that cool that he’s willing to overlook it to remain his friend.

For another, the plot follows a reasonable progression and, while getting a bit cluttered in the third act, works nicely as one of the few action-thrillers that’s come out recently that actually pays off on both ends. It doesn’t have any of the hokey or just plain hateful characterization that plagued those other films. The thrills are stable and quite gripping, even during the bizarre haunted house sequence at the end, and the action scenes are hard-hitting and rather brutal, yet never get too gratuitous and exploitative; it hits that sweet spot. It also benefits from not trying to completely detail David’s backstory, going into just enough detail to have it make sense but not to the point of bogging the film down. Given how a previous cut of the film did detail it further, while I do admit being a bit curious, that lack of mystique might have made me appreciate David Collins slightly less.

Probably this film’s greatest strength, aside from Stevens, is its dark sense of humour. Part of why David’s character works as well as it does is that the script has enough awareness to not take itself too seriously. Probably the biggest example of this, and also the funniest moment in the film, is when Laura and David meet with Luke’s school principal. Without spoiling it, it kind of plays like more anti-PC gold that is delivered and written brilliantly. Between that, the aforementioned haunted house and the in-universe character who follows real-world logic of rooting for the villain despite how scummy he is (until he just goes too damn far), it’s tongue-in-cheek enough to allow for actual fun without pretending to be smarter than it is, yet mature enough to make the scarier moments work.

All in all, this is a very fun action thriller, with a solid cast and expert balancing of both the flashier fight scenes and the tenser suspenseful moments. All the points go to Dan Stevens, whose portrayal of David feels like the Jason Statham role that we should have gotten in The Transporter Refueled but never did. It’s better than While We’re Young which, despite being a bit deeper in terms of writing, isn’t as consistently good as this was; no cheapness to undermine it. However, even if the main character isn’t nearly as good, American Ultra made for a more entertaining watch overall.

Far From The Madding Crowd

There’s a recurring trend among filmmakers with lower-than-low-budget beginnings that, once they start being given reasonable wallets to work with, they probably make the best use of it of all their peers. Think Peter Jackson's Braindead beginnings, and then look at how he handled Tolkien. Enter Thomas Vinterberg, probably best remembered for his contributions to the Dutch filmmaking movement Dogme 95, who does a masterful job at staging every single scene in this film. From the set locations to the costuming to the wide use of space to show off the beautiful countryside, this is a drop-dead gorgeous looking production. I mean, when even a simple scene of a man walking on a beach front looks like it had very clear time and effort put into it, credit needs to be given where it’s due. This also goes for the cast, particularly Carey Mulligan who does a great job as Bethsheba. Even if it feels like certain dramatic opportunities haven’t been afforded her, she embodies the ahead-of-its-time strong female character that Thomas Hardy was best known for; certainly does better than the last time she portrayed the female lead in a film based on a classic work of literature. I swear, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Baz Luhrmann for his butchering of The Great Gatsby.

And speaking of actors from far lesser adaptations of novels, we have Michael Sheen as one of Bethsheba’s male suitors. As much as I applaud this more theatrical actor for showing his skills in something that isn’t Twilight: Breaking Dawn, I really hate to admit it but I liked him better in Breaking Dawn. Don’t get me wrong, he’s far better written here and acted with a lot more dignity, but he doesn’t have nearly as much impact here as he should. And, at the end of the day, that’s the biggest problem this film has: For as immaculately produced and well-acted this film is, it really doesn’t leave that much of a lasting impression. I’ll freely admit that I’m not as familiar with the original novel as I am with Hardy’s other masterpiece Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, having studied it like so many other high school students did, but this story doesn’t feel like it has the immediacy that it should. Just glancing at the CliffNotes for the novel, because let’s face it everyone with access to the Internet did when they were looking at it, the story shows a lot of promise for drama/melodrama that isn’t cashed in on. Juno Temple’s Fanny Robbin is probably the best realized character, embodying the sense of tragedy and unfairness that pervades the era, but even then the obvious reactions to what happens to her aren’t shown.

All in all, while undeniably well made, it just barely registers out of a certain lack of narrative direction and just good acting. That last one particularly sucks because, having seen them in other works, the cast here is genuinely capable of making this work. It’s better than Ricki And The Flash, as this doesn’t have nearly as many narrative progression issues. However, purely in terms of engagement, Oddball honestly made for a more fulfilling watch, goofiness and all.

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