Variety of cast sizes used to captivate viewers

by Leonard G. Heldreth

Films can vary widely in the number of cast members necessary to bring their visions to the screen. One film this month shows only a single performer throughout; a second is dominated by one performer with supporting bit players; a third has two stars playing off against each other; and the fourth is a multi-player epic that draws cast members from past films and anticipates those to be made in the future.
Locke
One man, one car, one cell phone, and many decisions to make—these elements make up the gist of Steven Knight’s second film, Locke. The title refers to the hero, Ivan Locke, a concrete supervisor on a major construction project, but it also could refer to the bind the hero is in as he juggles his marriage, his job, the life of his impending child and his own sense of honor and values.
Knight’s previous film, Redemption, starred Jason Statham, but he is best known for his screenplays for Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. Crafting and directing a show that occurs within the classical unities of time, place and action is no small achievement on stage, but to achieve it in film is rare indeed. Further, Knight limits himself to one character, played by the phenomenal Tom Hardy, who usually plays roles requiring a strong physical presence, such as helmeted archvillain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Here, all the action takes place in Locke’s BMW as he drives the crowded and rain-swept highways from Birmingham to London.
Locke is a highly respected construction supervisor, one of the best in the business, and tomorrow he starts pouring the foundation for the biggest project in Europe outside of military and nuclear construction. Married for fifteen years, his wife and two teenaged sons are waiting at home to have dinner and watch a major soccer game with him. But something happened nearly a year ago, and instead of turning left from the construction site, Locke turns right, toward London, and that makes all the difference as he tries to juggle his job, his marriage, his children and his new obligations in London.
What is unusual is our sympathies are with Locke as he tries to do the best he can by everyone, applying the problem-solving methods that have served him well in his profession to the problems and crises not only there, but now in his personal life. Road closings have to be checked so huge trucks can deliver concrete at the right time the next morning, the quality of concrete has to be monitored and a dozen checklists have to be gone over before the pour begins. One small thing after another goes wrong and has to be dealt with, and tension builds as he realizes some of the problems are virtually out of his control, no matter how much he tries.
Just as Knight stuck to the classical unities in his structure, in his hero he shows us one man, essentially a good man, undone by a single flaw, a careless act from the past with implications he cannot escape. Locke’s past and his relationship with his father, who abandoned his family, exacerbate the situation, as he carries on a conversation with his dead father between actual phone calls.
Tension builds with each call, and Locke tries to navigate the rain-soaked darkness, guiding his car between trailer trucks and other vehicles, keeping his speed up but trying to avoid an accident or a speeding ticket, while responding to increasingly emotional incoming calls. The roads and other vehicles are like additional characters he must deal with.
Despite its classical structure, the film is not a tragedy, but it’s not a total victory for the good guy, either. Prices must be paid. And by the time the film entered its last fifteen minutes, I wasn’t sure whether I could continue to watch—there were too many possibilities for too many things to go wrong.
Locke was rehearsed and shot in two weeks, the block of time Hardy had available. The film was shot sequentially, almost unheard of in film, and the other actors called in their parts of the phone conversation from a nearby hotel.
Hardy is simply excellent, balancing the calm he has always projected with the chaos he feels inside as his world deteriorates. In two or three places, the viewer expects him to go totally ballistic—and he almost does—but then he reins it in, caps it and talks the other person into doing what needs to be done.
Locke is, without a doubt, the most intense film I’ve seen in recent years. Watch it when you want to be totally distracted, totally absorbed and totally wrung out. It makes most thrillers look like they are on tranquilizers.
Under the Skin
Many people, critics included, were perplexed about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, when it was released. Over time and endless discussions, and using Arthur C. Clarke’s cribsheet novel, viewers reached a kind of consensus about the film’s meaning. Even today, however, the film should be seen at least twice to grasp the visual and auditory experience upon which Kubrick hangs his intellectual framing. A similar passage of time may be necessary for most viewers to appreciate Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Just as Kubrick appropriated the science fiction genre and filled it with speculations about man’s future, so Glazer has taken the horror genre (with some science fiction tropes) and used it to comment upon human nature.
Michel Faber’s satirical novel of the same name apparently told of an alien who came to earth to procure meat for her planet, with Earth as a kind of cosmic hog farm. Glazer and screenwriter Walter Campbell strip away virtually all of that meaning, leaving only an alien (Scarlett Johansson) who, guided by her superiors, lures men to their deaths for purposes not clearly revealed. The film opens with what seems to be a cosmic eye that gradually morphs into a circle, implying the arrival of the alien entity on Earth. (Much of the film’s meaning, for better or worse, must be inferred.)
The main character (Johansson in a black wig and flaming red lips) drives around Glasgow in a white van, stopping to ask lone men for directions. If casual conversation indicates they are not likely to be missed, she invites them into the van and drives back to her run-down flat. There, she leads them through a door into a pitch black room with a gleaming ebony floor. She slowly retreats, removing her clothes as she backs away from them, and they undress also. Eventually the men, now sexually excited, begin to sink into the black floor, as though into a pit of thin tar, while the floor continues to support her weight. What happens next to the men is revealed later in the film.
Apparently learning about human nature as the film progresses, the alien finds she is ill-equipped to experience some of the pleasures of human existence, such as food and sex. She also finds her emotional detachment, first demonstrated in an excruciating scene on a wind-swept beach with a howling baby, has begun to crack. She tells a young man with neurofibromatosis (the “Elephant Man” disease) he has beautiful hands, and somehow he manages to escape the tar pit ending, although the alien’s helper drives off with him in the trunk of a car. The alien has at least three henchmen on motorcycles (homage to Jean Cocteau’s figure of Death on a motorcycle) who help her and clean up her messes, but also try to track her when her budding empathy interferes with her directives. Fleeing her henchmen, she has a brief encounter with a local man, and, following a terrifying discovery, escapes into a national forest where her true appearance is revealed.
Johansson, as the alien, projects both the blank indifference of her character at the beginning of the film, and her emotional growth at the end. Ironically, her role here has more “spider” characteristics than her better known role as the Black Widow in the Avenger movies. She has little dialogue, a sharp contrast to her role in Her, which was entirely voice. Her lack of dialogue and the thick Scottish brogues of most of the men add to the difficulty of understanding what is going on. The hitchhikers she picks up were local nonprofessionals who didn’t understand they were being filmed until they had been driven some distance in the van. Glazer had installed miniature cameras in the car, and the men didn’t realize what was happening until they were asked to sign releases.
Mica Levi’s music and sound effects add immensely to the feeling of dread and uncertainty in the movie—sometimes sounding like a nest of angry insects, sometimes like distorted otherworldly music.
Many viewers will find Under the Skin’s pacing and lack of explanation to be tough going. It’s not a mainstream movie, but rather an art house film that sometimes plunges into experimental territory, and its view of human nature is not positive. But for those willing to surrender to Glazer’s vision, Levi’s sound effects and Johansson’s acting, it’s a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience.
Le Week-End
Although he has made a number of films since then, Roger Michell’s last big hit was the 1999 comedy Notting Hill, in which Julia Roberts played a movie star very much like Julia Roberts. Le Week-End, by contrast, is a drama about middle-aged marriage; it’s laced with both comedy and sarcasm, a toned-down and cleaned-up Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which a couple in their sixties return to Paris, where they honeymooned. With their grown son and his family finally out of the house, they plan to commemorate (more or less) thirty years of marriage, and think about what comes next. This is not, however, a “renew your vows” sort of situation.
Nick Burrows (Jim Broadbent), a Birmingham college philosophy professor, has been forced into early retirement (although he hasn’t told his wife yet) and is terrified of the future; on this trip, he desperately wants his wife to hold him, console him, and affirm his attraction with some sexual comfort. She declines on all three accounts.
Meg Burrows (Lindsay Duncan) isn’t quite sure what she wants, but she knows it isn’t the life she’s leading. Tired of being a teacher, she wants more adventure—a life that includes gourmet food, exquisite wines, and maybe even a strange bed or two. If Nick doesn’t want to share this life, they may have come to a parting of ways.
In Paris, they take a suite at a hotel they can’t afford and run their credit card into the red. They sneak out of an expensive restaurant to avoid what they see as an extravagant bill.
Then they run into Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), an old Cambridge friend of Ned’s who is now academically successful, financially well-off and married to a pregnant wife (Judith Davis). He invites them to a dinner party in his expensive Paris apartment to celebrate the publication of his new book of essays. At the cocktail party, Meg is offered an assignation by one of the guests (she tentatively agrees); Ned unburdens himself to Morgan’s teenaged son Michael (Olly Alexander) as they share some pot and the evening climaxes with Ned’s confession of how his life is coming apart in a speech at the dinner table.
The next day Ned and Meg sit in a café, drinking up their last Euros, when Morgan walks in. He implies he will help them, and the movie ends with the three imitating the café dance scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part. The dance sequence is one of the more obvious references to the spirit of the nouvelle vague, but Michell also uses, as much as possible, natural light, authentic street locations and real people around the main characters. He kept trailers and other paraphernalia to a minimum to avoid intruding into the action between Duncan and Broadbent, trying to create the illusion of eavesdropping on them.
While Hanif Kureishi’s script is excellent, it is Broadbent and Duncan who bring the film to laughing, snarling life. Broadbent is highly regarded in the U.S. (an Oscar for Iris) but Duncan is less well known, as much of her work has been on the stage in England, where she ranks with people like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Here she is excellent—funny, bitter, angry, and resigned—as she demonstrates what, in a male character, would be called a midlife crisis. Goldblum plays a character with all of Goldblum’s typical mannerisms (in this case, it’s not a bad thing), and Alexander is excellent as Morgan’s teenaged son.
Le Week-End is not a cozy movie about lovable people celebrating their thirtieth anniversary, not a “Marigold Hotel” sort of experience. However, its frank portrayal of how people grow apart but still find reasons to stay together sheds fresh light on a period of life and marriage not treated often in film. Just watching Broadbent and Duncan work together against the Paris locations is reason enough to see the film.
Captain America:The Winter Soldier
The second film in the Captain America series from Marvel comics, The Winter Soldier has all of the usual action stunts building to a big, clock-racing, blow-everything-up finale, so it should please those looking for such entertainment. It also has better character development than the previousCaptain America, giving Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a mind as well as spectacular muscle; he actually questions his orders and interrogates his superior, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
The new directors (Anthony and Joe Russo) also drop onto the superhero genre an overlay of paranoid thriller from the ’70s (think Three Days of the Condor); the evil organization Hydra has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., and, as Captain America realizes when he has to fight his way out of an elevator full of enemy agents, that means you can’t trust anyone.
To add to the ’70s atmosphere, they bring in Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, another figure of power who can not be trusted. Perhaps most interesting, the writers bring back Bucky Barnes (Stan Sebastian), Captain America’s old friend, whom he believed to be dead. Revival of the dead, counting the deep-frozen Captain, Bucky and at least one other major character, seems to be a major motif in this film. Scarlett Johansson returns as Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, and Anthony Mackie is introduced as Sam Wilson, the superhero known as Falcon. The ending works better than that of most such films, although it also sets up the next Captain America film—no surprise there.
Captain America:The Winter Soldier is a cut above most of the superhero action films, and should please most viewers looking for some high-powered action entertainment.
— Leonard G. Heldreth
Editors note: All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of films cited can be found at marquettemonthly.org

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