Tag Archives: Aaron Taylor-Johnson

TIFF18: A Million Little Pieces

A Million Little Pieces is a technically competent (and occasionally impressive) film that lacks perspective and personality. In life generally and this festival particularly, we have been inundated with films about addictions and recovery. If you’re going to pile on, I expect you have a hot take, a fresh point of view. It’s not unreasonable to expect that A Million Little Pieces might have had one; several years ago (2003, in fact), James Frey released his memoir (of the same name) and it was a monster best-seller. But when questions of authenticity surfaced, Frey’s shooting star burned out quickly, thanks in large part to Oprah’s dragon-fire condemnation.

The film was relegated to back burner, then cold storage, then deep freeze as the controversy was allowed to cool. But now that people have all but forgotten his name, Sam Taylor-Johnson brings his story to the big screen but curiously leaves the scandal unthawed, with only a Mark Twain quote to excuse away his dishonesty.

AMillionLittlePieces_0HEROWhat’s left is a story without a single breath of uniqueness. Drugs are bad, behaviour off the rails, shipped to rehab against his will, detox makes you sick, “I don’t need to be here,” resistance, rule-breaking, temptation, uncovering trauma, cautious optimism. Insert new names and this could literally describe at least a dozen movies about addictions, and those are just the ones I can name and I can’t name shit. Although Sam Taylor-Johnson makes things pretty (save her own husband, with cracked teeth and a broken nose), this feels like a very familiar, very formulaic iteration.

Taylor-Johnson’s husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, co-writes the script with her (which seems not to be a strength) and stars as Frey. She has enormous faith in his abilities as an actor, and directs him well. He’s committed and intense, and would have been great in a great role, except they failed to write one, and this “Frey” character is bland and superficial. We hardly get to know him, and the few flashbacks are not informative or expository, they’re hardly more than images. That said, his costars, including Billy Bob Thornton, Giovanni Ribisi, Juliette Lewis, Charlie Hunnam, and Odessa Young, get even shorter shrift. Back stories? Ha. These people barely get front stories. They fill the obligatory sharing-circle chairs and that’s about it.

I think there might have been a little life to this story had they not shied away from the truth of it. But as is, it’s a million little pieces of ordinary that add up to 113 minutes of boring, minus the 40 seconds or so when Aaron rocks out with his cock out. With so many options at the cinema, this just doesn’t cut it. An easy miss.

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TIFF18: Outlaw King

Well, if you can’t beat Braveheart, you can beat horses. I mean, literally ruthlessly kill horses. Hundreds of them at a go. My god it was rough watching.

Outlaw King follows a different character in the Braveheart cinematic universe – Robert the Bruce. He starts the movie out as a defeated nobleman, having just surrendered his land and castle (but never his heart) to England’s King Edward. Oh he is pitiable in his lovely green frock, belted low on the hips – a dress that accentuates his piercing blue eyes and his hand-crafted mullet. King Edward gives him a wife (Florence Pugh) as a reward, and they are married in a ceremony celebrating the love of naps and political alliance, but not necessary each other. But since you can only mollify a man with one wife at a time, soon enough he’s riding around the beautiful Scottish countryside, trying to unite the people (impossible) and rally an army (near impossible) to mount the campaign against their English oppressors anew.

As you can imagine, King Edward and his sadistic, bowl-cut sporting son the Prince of MV5BYzE1Njc4MmQtNjFhMS00MGQwLWJiMGYtZjQzYzljZDQ3ODkwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_Wales are quite enraged, so they’re only going to come at Robert (Chris Pine) harder – including declaring him an outlaw, and seizing his wife and daughter (which is poor gift-giving etiquette on their part). So Robert just gallops around raising hell and hopefully spirits until the two sides meet in an epic, EPIC, horse-murdering battle.

Outlaw King reunites Pine with his Hell Or High Water director, David Mackenzie. Unfortunately, lightning hasn’t struck twice. Theme and tone and conviction are all noticeably weaker, as if neither Mackenzie nor Pine is entirely convinced this Robert the Bruce fellow is really worthy of the mantle this film bestows upon him. They raise the stakes by painting him a devoted family man and thoughtful lover, a conceit I’d expect to see in a bodice-ripping romance, not a historical war movie. But it still doesn’t quite add up to a towering hero, perhaps in part due to lazy editing. The movie, at 137 minutes, is too long by quite a margin. There’s a lot of repetition that could easily be cut down without losing a damn thing.

But don’t worry, it’s not totally without merit. The men, including Aaron Taylor-Johnson (does anyone play deranged as well as him?) and Tony Curran love to roll around in the mud. The boys spend 97% of the movie caked in dirt and bathed in blood – it’s a real sausagefest that should sprout at least 10 new chest hairs for all who watch. And you’ll learn some handy Scottish customs such as: it’s not just kilts they don’t wear under with; and the old smacking people to wish them luck (“Let this blow be the last you receive unanswered”) – a real swindle if I’ve ever seen one; and weird swan oaths that are perhaps better left to history, or at least what passes for history on Netflix.

Outlaw King is often intense and often gory and often brutal. But just when it’s getting to be too much, Mackenzie cuts to a long, sweeping panorama of the countryside, giving me space to breathe. But then he zooms in tight on Pine so we see that Bruce is demented with grief – it’s right there in his eyes. Sure they might be sheep shaggers and horse killers, but they’re also just super chivalrous men who politely wait for each side to make their impassioned, inspirational pep talks before commencing slicing and dicing. It’s real beautiful stuff. I would hesitate to recommend it if it was being released in theatres, but since you’ve got Netflix anyway, why not wait for a day when you’re really mad at a horse, and live vicariously.

Savages

I spent most of the movie trying to decipher Blake Lively’s pronunciation of a lead character’s name: was it Sean, or John? And I grew annoyed with director Oliver Stone who was clearly too enamoured with Lively to give her any direction. No, Blake, not every line of the narration should be delivered with life-or-death huskiness. Too much, Blake. Still, in the end, I must admit that the Sean-John conundrum’s fault does not lay with Lively but with either the script writer or the casting director. The character’s name is actually Chon, but he’s played by the very white and very ordinary Taylor Kitsch. Does that make sense to me? It does not. But this movie’s about to get way, way more problematic.

Chon (Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are two halves of a very successful weed business in Laguna, California. Ben is sweet and idealistic and travels the world to impoverished communities where he can spend his profits on the people who need it. Chon is the messed up vet returned from his tours of duty to provide the business with backbone and an intimidation factor. O (Blake Lively) fucks them both – though it’s more of a love circle than a love triangle, if you know what I mean.

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Their business grows just large enough to pique the interest of a real cartel, run by Elena (Salma Hayek). She makes them a business proposition which they are stupid enough to believe they can turn down, and when they do, Benicio Del Toro shows up to kidnap the one thing they both love (well, after weed). Technically I should say Benicio’s character shows up, and yet I think we’ve all seen him play the creepy, threatening bad guy so many times that I’m starting to wonder if perhaps Del Toro really is running a drug empire and acting is just a clever way to launder money and divert suspicion.

Anyway, then it’s a mess of torture porn and “interesting directing choices” to prove that Stone is still the master of mindless violence. Which is a nice way of saying the first half is sloppy as hell and the second half has no heft. The movie believes itself to be slick and subversive and goes to great lengths to convince you of it too, but stops just short of actually being good. Overwritten and under-acted, this is indeed a return to Oliver Stone’s past, but probably not in the way he intended. Savages came out in 2012 mind you, and the only other film Stone’s done in the ensuing years is Snowden so I think it’s more fair to say he’s “done” than “back”.

Nocturnal Animals

As the film opens, Susan (Amy Adams) feels guilty for not being happy, despite having ‘everything’ – Armie Hammer plays her current husband, but apparently they were maybe never truly supposed to be together.

A successful art gallery owner, Susan’s home is perfectly styled, filled with lacquered objets, 18nocturnal1-master768-v2beautiful things, much like herself, impeccably dressed, heavily made up. Her “bare” (movie bare, of course) face comes as a shock when she curls into bed to read a manuscript that has arrived that earlier that day, a surprise from the ex-husband she hasn’t heard from in 20 years.

She’s immediately engrossed in the story, which we see recreated as a movie within a movie. Jake Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher play two halves of a couple travelling down a remote road at night. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a sinister man threatening them. It’s immediately tense. Disturbing. Distraught, Susan slams the book shut.

But that’s not the end, is it? No, she keeps going. And things get darker, and trickier. Director Tom Ford pulls a nasty trick on us: in casting Isla Fisher, he is intentionally making her a very easy substitute for Amy Adams (Isla Fisher once sent Christmas cards to friends and family with Amy Adams photo-shopped in her place, and no one noticed). But we’re not the only ones to notice the similarities: Susan starts to feel a little unsettled too.

This is only Tom Ford’s second film; I was blown away by his first effort, A Single Man. He has a distinctive style, he’s incredibly visual, but the story in A Single Man held up. More than that: it crawled right into my soul and crushed it, just a tiny bit. Colin Firth was robbed when he didn’t maxresdefault-6win an Oscar for it (well, he lost to Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart, and that was certainly deserved as well; luckily Firth one the very next year for The King’s Speech). You may know that Tom Ford is a fashion designer, but that’s clearly not the only trick up his sleeve. His direction is not a gimmick (it likely helps that he leaves the costuming to someone else, and that no Tom Ford suits appear in the film). Maybe it’s little more style than substance, but it’s not without substance, or merit, or worth. Nocturnal Animals is dark and moody and horrible. It is sometimes graphic, and psychologically tortured, and stunning.

It’s the kind of movie that will haunt you for days. There are lots of performances worth talking about: Amy Adams, and the sadness she can convey in her downturned eyes; Jake Gyllenhaal’s fire, and his anguish. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was nominated for a Golden Globe for his supporting skeevy work here, but I think it’s Michael Shannon who maybe deserved the nomination, mustache and all. Can this man do any wrong? Oh wait

Most people bill Nocturnal Animals as a work of revenge, but I feel it’s more about regret. I suppose your interpretation may rest on the ending, which is intentionally vague, but I believe an indictment on Susan’s character. What did you think?

 

 

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron is great! Not Oscar-great but blockbuster-great. No need to think or feel creeped out about A.I. like in Ex Machina, just enjoy the ride with moody Ultron as he carries out his plan to kill all humans. But fear not!  Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are on the case.

One of the things Age of Ultron does best is give us lots of new characters. That fits well with the revolving door that is the Avengers comic book roster. So we are introduced/reintroduced to many characters we know are, or will become, Avengers, like War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Vision, and in unfortunate licencing loophole, Quicksilver. Jay found that super confusing having already seen a different Quicksilver, without an accent, in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and I agree. It shouldn’t have happened and it takes away from the movie. Still better to have him here, I think, because Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are great together (this movie captured their relationship well) but it’s time for a deal with Fox. At least Marvel got Spider-Man back from Sony, but let’s get the rest of these movies working together too.

Seeing Vision pop up was an unexpected surprise for me. I liked that he made an appearance and thought he was used well, both as a source of conflict between the Avengers and then as a contrast to Ultron, though they share the same view on humanity’s likely future (i.e., not promising). Really, all the new characters were handled well and I feel like we are well on our way to the Infinity Gauntlet saga.

The disappointing thing is there are now four or five other Marvel movies on the way between now and Avengers 3. I’m excited for Captain America 3, especially with Spidey on board, but beyond that, it’s way too much. Especially when I use Vision’s introduction as a comparison; Ant-Man, Black Panther, and Dr. Strange could all be brought in as part of an Avengers movie, and I wish that’s what was being done. But since there’s money on the table we get separate movies for each. Let’s be honest, I will probably see all those, so you can expect to hear this same complaint every few months between now and the next Avengers movie.

I can’t hold that against this movie though. Avengers: Age of Ultron itself does things exactly right. I thoroughly enjoyed it and wouldn’t have changed a thing so it gets ten Infinity Gems out of ten.

Albert Nobbs

Downton Abbey ain’t got nothin on Mr. Nobbs. He’s a servant extraordinaire – no one’s better at anticipating his customer’s needs and the restaurant hums because of his competence. Every night he goes back to his little room, counts his tips fastidiously, and hides them under the floorboards after totting them up in his ledger. So when he’s assigned a new roommate, he’s paranoid his secret will be revealed. No, not the cash. His boobs. Albert Nobbs is not a mister after all.

Albert (Glenn Close) started passing as a man after a traumatic incident at the age of 14. Realistically, it was a way to live safely and an opportunity to earn more money. But he has lived in isolation and constant fear of discovery ever since. Now all he wants is those few extra bucks so he can buy a little shop and live independently. The only thing stopping him is the lack of a wife – which, as you can imagine, is a bit of a roadbump. Luckily he meets someone to inspire him (Janet McTeer), and he soon turns his eye upon a lovely young kitchen staffer (Mia Wasikowska) who hardly knows what to do with the attention of a creepy little old man. Plus her lust bucket is filled with thoughts of the new mechanic (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who is handsome and manly and also, it turns out, a drunken bully.

Both Glenn Close and Janet McTeer received Oscar nominations for their respective roles in the film, pretty much a given considering the depth of their perfomances. There’s an ache to watching them – to Close in particular because we are so aware of Albert’s constant pain and discomfort. She never makes a single misstep. And to its credit, the film resists moralizing, or false contextualizing to make it more relevant to today’s social and political climate. It just is. Which is fine, indeed excellent, when it comes to watching stunning performances but the film itself does suffer from being a little too close, a little too one-note.