Tag Archives: Jeremy Northam

Creation (2009, Jon Amiel)

Creation is the not the story of how Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and the ghost of his oldest daughter (Martha West) collaborated in the writing of On the Origin of Species. That story would make a much better movie.

The film opens with a title card explaining it will be about Darwin writing that book, released in 1859. Some conversation early on places the present action in 1858. So a year. At this point, it’s been twenty years since he published Voyage of the Beagle. Some of those adventures show up in flashback–a flashback’s flashback–as Bettany recounts stories to West.

Well, at the beginning. Then not. The Beagle flashbacks are the biggest budgeted sequences in Creation and director Amiel treats them as set pieces. Only then such flashbacks (in flashbacks) stop and so do set pieces. Instead, it’s just Bettany hanging around at home, making churchy wife Jennifer Connelly real upset with his blasphemous manuscript and research. It seems like this narrative floundering is covering a lot of time but it turns out it isn’t. Amiel and screenwriter John Collee are terrible at pacing. Why do they need pacing when they can have Bettany talk to West (not an actual ghost, just a narrative contrivance). If only the exposition moved the film along.

After a promising first act, Creation settles into that “ghost” story. Amiel and Collee tease out details of West’s death in the present while flashing back, at first, to unrelated family bonding scenes. The flashbacks eventually get confusing because Bettany’s makeup for Darwin age forty-nine is bald with stringy hair, very pasty skin, a paunch. The film skips back seven and eight years to the West flashbacks–those seven actual years in between Darwin’s daughter’s death and the Species’s completion are apparently empty of worthy story material. Darwin age forty-two makeup is bald with stringy hair, mildly pasty skin, general nineteenth century upper class flab. It’s not hard to tell them apart, but only because Bettany’s good. But in terms of filmmaking–Amiel’s direction, Jess Hall’s flat photography–well, it’s good they have Bettany.

Also because it’s an entirely thankless part. Collee’s script is deceptively worse than first impression. It’s not bland biopic stuff, it’s bland biopic stuff without any characters. Amiel, whose direction is never better than mediocre (outside the special effects sequences of animal decomposition and so on), he at least tries occasionally. He really likes his close-ups. So the actors can spout either ominous lines (because of hiding daughter West’s fate in flashback) or exposition.

While Bettany’s got it bad, he at least gets to walk around in his make-up. Connelly is left to take care of the kids and give disapproving looks when Bettany doesn’t take his “war on God” seriously. And Connelly never really gets a role. She ends up with one poorly written, well-acted scene. It’s exceptionally impressive filmmaking from Amiel, Hall, and editor Melanie Oliver. It’s this entirely manipulative, cheap, soapy scene and it still works. Because Bettany and Connelly. Connelly gets some character motivation at what might as well be the end of the movie. There’s still more movie and it’s bad, but that moment is when Creation could’ve got out in the black.

But it doesn’t. Because Amiel and Collee are entirely artless with Creation. They want all to benefits of melodramatic contrivances without ever embracing those contrivances. There’s also the issue of how the film characterizes the religious. Caricaturizes. Connelly and Jeremy Northam (extended cameoing as the village clergy) are inappropriately villainized. But meaning they need to be villainized differently. There’s no dramatic fodder in it as is.

Bettany’s good. Not great. Better than decent or fine. West is decent. Connelly is problematic; the part’s crap. Northam’s cameo is too thin. Ditto Toby Jones. He’s bombastic though. Energy is a lot in Creation, as the film stops producing any once the second act hits. Benedict Cumberbatch is good. He tries.

If there’s a great film about the final year of Darwin writing Species, Creation sure ain’t it. Amiel’s just too bland a director to save the film from the script. It could’ve at least maintained mediocre, but as it becomes more and more clear how bad Collee’s plotting and pacing is going to get… well, mediocre’s way out of reach.

The awful Christopher Young score doesn’t help either.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Amiel; screenplay by John Collee, based on a story by Amiel and Collee and a book by Randal Keynes; director of photography, Jess Hall; edited by Melanie Oliver; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Laurence Dorman; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Icon Film Distribution.

Starring Paul Bettany (Charles Darwin), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Darwin), Martha West (Annie Darwin), Jeremy Northam (Reverend Innes), Benedict Cumberbatch (Joseph Hooker), Jim Carter (Parslow), Bill Paterson (Dr. Gully), and Toby Jones (Thomas Huxley).


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The Winslow Boy (1999, David Mamet)

The Winslow Boy utilizes all the trappings of a stage adaptation without ever being stagy. Director Mamet opens the film with a family entering their home–there’s some muted conversation before they get completely inside, then the introductions begin. So it’s a very play structure too, at least as far as the first and third acts go, but Mamet perfectly matches that structure. The way Mamet paces the film is exquisite. He anticipates story beats with stylistic choices, often infusing Winslow with indeterminate foreboding.

The first act sets up the cast. Nigel Hawthorne is the stern but loving and proud father, Gemma Jones is mother, Rebecca Pidgeon is the oldest, a pre-WWI feminist and suffragette, Matthew Pidgeon is the disappointing middle child, and Guy Edwards is the (much younger) pride of the family. Mamet and his actors deliberately establish their characters, with Mamet moving the narrative focus among them for best result. As the actor establishes their character–the beginning Winslow Boy is sort of a rapid, pre-Christmas ground situation exposition dump; Mamet keeps it moving through dialogue speed, repetition, Barbara Tulliver’s editing, and especially Benoît Delhomme’s photography. Winslow Boy only has the one main location–the family’s house–and Mamet is inventively pragmatic composing shots in it. Again, he emphasizes the actors’ performances, even when it’s an off screen actor.

After the setup, the film jumps ahead four months. There has been some hint of the main plot–young Edwards is expelled from the royal naval academy for thievery, a crime he maintains he didn’t commit–but not how it will play out. Hawthorne fights the expulsion, at great expense to the family and to great publicity. It’s Edwardian England, between wars, and it all causes quite a stir. Enough of one to eventually threaten Rebecca Pigdeon’s love life.

Mamet and the cast have a great deal of fun with Edwardian propriety, with Pidgeon getting the best lines. There’s a thoughtfulness and gentleness in the propriety and how the actors essay it, something the film technically emphases. The music’s different, the photography and composition are more intimate–even when it’s set during a bright day, Mamet and Delhomme find a way to focus just on their subjects. The rest of the world is far away.

About halfway through the film, Winslow Boy introduces Jeremy Northam’s barrister. Winslow is never about the process in getting the expulsion reconsidered, it’s about the effects of that process, both immediate and collateral. Northam’s character lets Mamet take the film into the House of Commons, to hear the debate–otherwise, news of the case is usually shown through expository shots–supportive buttons, political cartoons, branded umbrellas.

Thanks to Mamet’s established repetition device, he’s able to not just get the information across of what’s happening offscreen, but he’s able to give it the necessary context for viewers not well-versed early 20th century British law. Pidgeon and Hawthorne are learning about it too. It’s a great way to make the characters more sympathetic too; it puts characters and viewers at the same point on the learning curve.

The performances are all excellent. Rebecca Pidgeon and Jeremy Northam have a lovely, gentle romantic subplot. They’re both great, though never as good with anyone but each other. Their timing, how Mamet handles their peculiar flirtation, anchors the third act of the film.

First act lead Hawthorne spends the second act in obscured transition. In addition to straining his family to defend Edwards’s honor, he’s got his own aging character arc, which he never gets to play on front burner, and then he’s got to deal with the publicity fallout. So he has these relationship arcs with almost every character. Sometimes just for a quiet joke.

Jones is the film’s unsung glue for the first half. She’s mom, she’s always sympathetic, she’s great with all her costars. Her comic timing is phenomenal. Matthew Pidgeon’s good, Edwards’s good, everyone’s always good and often better. Mamet directs for his actors.

The Winslow Boy is a quiet, gentle, rousing success.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Mamet; screenplay by Mamet, based on the play by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Benoît Delhomme; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Alaric Jans; production designer, Gemma Jackson; produced by Sarah Green; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Nigel Hawthorne (Arthur Winslow), Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow), Gemma Jones (Grace Winslow), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Morton), Guy Edwards (Ronnie Winslow), Matthew Pidgeon (Dickie Winslow), Aden Gillett (John Waterstone), Colin Stinton (Desmond Curry), Sarah Flind (Violet), and Neil North (First Lord).


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Mimic (1997, Guillermo del Toro), the director’s cut

Based on one of the edits, I’m assuming Mimic isn’t exactly a director’s cut (i.e. del Toro finished his cut, the Weinsteins took it and reedited it) as an approximation. He went back and did what he could to make it fit his intent. Maybe there are more examples—I haven’t seen the original cut—but the one I noticed was jarring.

Mimic’s not a bad film, but no one was really trying except the actors. I make that statement assuming Jeremy Northam was trying to be a thinking American action hero… but he just couldn’t do the accent.

The script takes a lot of short cuts. You’re supposed to care about Northam and wife Mira Sorvino because they’re having trouble having a baby.

Sorvino makes Mimic work—her early scenes with sidekick Alix Koromzay do wonders to establish the character.

Having the protagonists be married and in this thriller does show some ingenuity on del Toro’s part. It would work if Northam were good. And if del Toro didn’t have a little autistic kid in danger. del Toro does kill off a couple kids, which is a shock.

The cast is all strong—Giancarlo Giannini as the autistic kid’s guardian, Charles S. Dutton as a transit cop who’s stuck with Northam, Josh Brolin as Northam’s partner.

Oh, I forgot that ludicrous bit. The script has Northam and Brolin acting like movie detectives… only they’re CDC employees.

Great special effects. Terrible Marco Beltrami music. It evens out.

Mimic’s fine.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Guillermo del Toro; screenplay by Matthew Robbins and del Toro, based on a screen story by Robbins and del Toro and the short story by Donald A. Wollheim; director of photography, Dan Laustsen; edited by Peter Devaney Flanagan and Patrick Lussier; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Carol Spier; produced by Ole Bornedal, B.J. Rack and Bob Weinstein; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Mira Sorvino (Dr. Susan Tyler), Jeremy Northam (Dr. Peter Mann), Alexander Goodwin (Chuy), Giancarlo Giannini (Manny), Charles S. Dutton (Leonard), Josh Brolin (Josh), Alix Koromzay (Remy), F. Murray Abraham (Dr. Gates), James Costa (Ricky), Javon Barnwell (Davis), Norman Reedus (Jeremy) and Ho Pak-kwong (Preacher).

Guy X (2005, Saul Metzstein)

No studio picked up Guy X for a theatrical release. I kept seeing it in Jason Biggs’s filmography, kept waiting for it to show up in a theater and it never did. I assumed the worst from the lack of theatrical release–not to mention thinking Mena Suvari was in the film (it’s Natascha McElhone). After seeing it–actually, maybe halfway into it–I realized why there was no theatrical release. It’d be impossible to sell. Guy X is an epical story masquerading as a character study. Most of the epical narrative developments occur off screen. There are no gripping, tense moments. It’s not even subtle. It’s disinterested in the viewer’s expectation. I’m guessing it’s either a good adaptation of the novel or there’s a lot on the editing room floor.

The plot–Jason Biggs is mistakenly sent to a remote Army base in Greenland (instead of Hawaii) and encounters a strange set of characters, an alluring young woman (McElhone) and a nutty colonel (a great Jeremy Northam)–is kind of simple and kind of not. Guy X could easily be a M*A*S*H knock-off–it does feel a bit like the show anyway–but it’s not. It kind of reminded me of Antarctic Journal, a film no one involved with Guy X could have seen (unless they visited the future). Guy X has lots of scenes of isolation–Biggs is frequently alone in the film, with the supporting cast often less salient than the scenery–but that theme isn’t the prevailing one… but I don’t know what is then.

There is lots of comedy, sometimes easy, sometimes not. There’s a scene with the soldiers watching the same movie they’ve seen week after week, reciting the lines in unison and it’s funny, but there’s something else to it. There’s romance–the film wastes no time establishing the attraction between Biggs and McElhone and the actors do a fantastic job. But then there’s also the big story line, the important one, and the film handles it in a particular manner. It’s hard to explain but basically, the film never explains why Biggs does what he does and, more singularly, it never applauds him for his actions. There’s no payoff for the viewer.

Biggs, whose career has gotten depressing to the point I don’t even want to look on IMDb (but I am and ouch, why has Woody abandoned him), is great. It’s a non-comedic leading man role from him, something I kind of wasn’t expecting. He’s fantastic–especially given he’s got to make the character, a relative enigma, work with all sorts of mild revelations. McElhone is good too. Much of the film depends on their chemistry and they excel.

The supporting cast is all strong. Northam’s playing an American here, great job. Michael Ironside’s great. In the flashiest role, Sean Tucker does a fine job.

Saul Metzstein hasn’t directed much but he does a wonderful job. There’s the wide aspect of the always light Greenland landscape contrasted with the confined Army base–then even more confined when everything goes dark. At times, he reminded me of Lars Von Trier, though I don’t know why… something about the handling of space. François Dagenais’s cinematography and the music–by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Charlie Mole–are also essential components.

As the film ended, I wondered if I was giving it too much credit or too little. I decided on too little. (It’s gotten to the point I can’t believe it when recent films are actually good).

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Saul Metzstein; screenplay by Steve Attridge and John Paul Chapple, based on a novel by John Griesemer; director of photography, François Dagenais; edited by Anne Sopel; music by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Charlie Mole; production designer, Mike Gunn; produced by Mike Downey, Jason Piette and Sam Taylor; released by First Look International.

Starring Jason Biggs (Rudy), Natascha McElhone (Irene), Jeremy Northam (Woolwrap), Sean Tucker (Lavone), Hilmir Snær Guðnason (Petri), Harry Standjofski (Chaplain Brank), Rob deLeeuw (Slim), Donny Falsetti (Genteen), Jonathan Higgins (Vord) and Michael Ironside (Guy X).


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