Top 10 Films About Literary Icons

With International Dylan Thomas day having just passed, I deemed it high-time to take a look at a movies that have dared to delve into the backstories of literary icons…and done it rather well.

Originally published on Top 10 Films.

 1. Capote (Bennett Miller, US, 2005)

The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman took home an Oscar for his expertly-calibrated performance as Truman Capote. Based on the research process that produced the controversial novel In Cold Blood, director Bennett Miller (of Foxcatcher fame) shows precision and integrity in his handling of the material, producing a film at once pervasively tense and quietly hypnotic. Hoffman captures the charm and power of the unparalleled Capote to electrifying effect, but the film never shies away from depicting the darker underbelly that facilitated his success. Capote dazzles not just as a character study of the immensely complex, and compulsive author but also as a fascinating look at the relationship between a writer and his subject, and a rare entity in the biopic canon in that it avoids idolatry.


2. Bright Star (Jane Campion, UK, 2009)

Jane Campion proves herself a force to be reckoned with in this wistful and melancholic rendering of the unconsummated romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish are the literary love-birds whose relationship seems doomed from the outset. Still, for the all the tragedy, Campion’s film is disarmingly beautiful, bursting with colour, restless camera movements, lingering close-ups and of course, Keats’ spirited poetry.


3. The End Of The Tour (James Ponsoldt, US, 2015)

 Not a biopic of David Foster Wallace, insomuch as a rendezvous with the idea of him. Based on David Lipsky’s memoir of his five-day interview with Wallace for Rolling Stone during the tour for the eccentric novelist’s magnum opus Infinite Jest, The End Of The Tour is essentially an extended conversation, but an illuminating, meditative and ferocious one at that. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg (harkening back to the rapid-fire dialogue he perfected in The Social Network) turn in career-best work as the two David’s. This emotionally and intellectually charged two-hander is fuelled by their effervescent chemistry.


4. The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes, UK, 2013)

A languidly-paced period drama that charts the intricacies of Charles Dickens’ extramarital relationship with ingénue Nelly Robinson, starring British acting pedigree Ralph Fiennes (also taking on the mantle as director) and rebel-trooper-in-waiting Felicity Jones. Sizzling with repressed desire and sideway glances, Fiennes shows a cunning eye for detail in his debut outing as director. With a keen grasp of the novelist’s talent and influence, as well as the era, The Invisible Woman makes for an aesthetically pleasing and engaging biopic.


5. Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, US, 2013)

Delightfully campy and quippy, Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson go head-to-head as Walt Disney and PL Travers in this chronicle of how the Mary Poppins film came to be. The shiny, upbeat veneer is balanced by a poignant backstory giving credence to Poppins’ origins, where Colin Farrell does empathetic work as Travers’ alcoholic father. It’s twinkly-eyed, without ever pulling too mercilessly on the heartstrings, and who better than Hanks and Thompson to make the sparring go down sweeter. Magic.


6. Set Fire To The Stars (Andy Goddard, UK, 2014)

Exquisitely shot and elegantly staged, director Andy Goddard takes a monochromatic look at Dylan Thomas’ tour to New York in 1950, three years before his whiskey-fuelled death. Elijah Wood is doe-eyed academic John Brinnin, tasked with taming the beast, whilst Welsh-born Celyn Jones plays the poetic hell-raiser in question. What escalates is part bromance, part road-movie and though it never really digs beneath the surface of its characters, it remains a handsome snapshot of a bygone era and a beloved wordsmith.


7. Barfly (Barbet Schroeder, US, 1987)

 Roger Ebert labelled Barfly one of the best films of 1987 and this semi-autobiographical tale of poet and author Charles Bukowski, is certainly an atmospheric paean to the sordid back-alleys and dive bars of 1980s LA. Worthy of mention for Mickey Rourke’s performance alone, his besmirched poet – a Bukowski type figure named Henry, as opposed to a direct invocation – is all the more resonant because you sense that the potential scuppered by way of alcohol abuse would come to haunt Rourke’s own career.


8. Big Sur (Michael Polish, US, 2013)

Infused with a pragmatic perspective, director Michael Polish doesn’t condemn the Beat generation, nor does he revere them. In this coalescing of Jack Kerouac’s novel with the real events that inspired it, Polish achieves an intriguingly complex and impressionistic portrait of an elusive, much-fabled literary figure. Majestic, surreal and meditative, it doesn’t quite capture the charismatic intensity attributed to Kerouac (Jean Marc-Barr), but at a pacy 70 minutes it plays with the hyperactive restlessness that the Beat generation were so seduced by.


9. The Edge Of Love (John Maybury, UK, 2008)

 A fanciful, fleeting peek into a supposed ménage à trois between Dylan Thomas, his wife Caitlin and his childhood friend Vera. Matthew Rhys, Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley captivate as the bohemian trio who flock to the Welsh hills to escape the calamities of WW2. Director John Maybury has flagrantly assumed creative license; regardless it crackles with desire, tension and jealousy and conveys Thomas’ zest for life.


10. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, US, 2003)

 Blending documentary, drama and animation what emerges from this unconventional portrait of underground comic-book artist Harvey Pekar, is something as engrossing as it is poignant. Considered a ‘blue-collar Mark Twain’, the film’s exploration of Pekar’s quotidian lifestyle allows his true originality to shine through. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis have great fun as Pekar and his third wife Joyce Brabner, rivalling some of the great screwball partnerships of the 40s. Directed by real-life couple Berman & Pulcini, whose screenplay earned them an Oscar nomination, it hums with the kind of oddball creativity you imagine the real Pekar would’ve appreciated. Exhilaratingly subversive.



Review: The Pretty One

The Pretty One, 2014.

DIR. Jenee LaMarque. Starring: Zoe Kazan, Jake Johnson, John Carroll Lynch, Ron Livingston, Shae D’lyn, Frankie Shaw, Sterling Beaumon

Upon reading the plot to this film – twin sisters Laurel and Audrey are involved in a car accident, whereupon Laurel takes the identity of her now-dead but more popular sister – you would be forgiven for giving it a miss on the basis of sheer ridiculous. Somehow, however, the film succeeds in pulling off this premise with relative aplomb.

I suspect this is in part down to the likeability of the lead actress who plays both sisters, Zoe Kazan.

After a sparkling breakout performance in Ruby Sparks, Kazan has cornered the market for slightly awkward, but adorable love interest. And The Pretty One is no exception.

audrey laurelWe meet Laurel first. As she’s losing her virginity. To the boy she used to babysit. Mousy, painfully shy and a penchant for wearing her dead mother’s dresses, she asks her male companion if their tryst makes them boyfriend and girlfriend. He laughs. She’s not joking. Unkempt, unconfident and underestimated, Laurel has settled for  helping her widowed father (John Carroll Lynch) with his painting-forgery business.

Audrey, meanwhile, exudes sexiness and self-assurance. Having fled the nest when their mother died, she has her own apartment, a job as a real estate broker selling “storybook houses,” and a sharp dress sense. It’s not hard to see why Laurel might want to switch places, a la Mary-Kate and Ashley in most of their films. A tragic car-crash becomes the perfect vehicle for this desire when the hospital confuses the twins and Laurel sets about adjusting to life as Audrey.

One of the reasons the film works despite this underlying implausibility (surely someone would realise?) is by acknowledging our doubts. When Laurel gets a haircut that exactly imitates Audrey’s wavy ombre do, Audrey’s reaction is believably aghast and irritated. Similarly, Laurel (as Audrey) is on the precipice of bean-spilling, but her family have nothing but put-downs and silence to offer about Laurel. Her stepmother even goes so far as to say ‘it’s better this way’. Though we might not agree with Laurel’s choice, her alternatives are slim.

Moving into her late sister’s apartment and taking over her job, Laurel covers up her odd behaviour and general lack of knowledge about her own life, by feigning post-traumatic amnesia. She soon discovers the flaws Audrey tried so hard to mask – an affair with an intense married man (Ron Livingston – his allure turned on full) and a feud with her next-door neighbour/tenant, whom she was about to evict – the awkward and roguishly charming Basel (Jake Johnson). Increasingly drawn to the latter, Laurel quickly finds herself in a pickle; falling in love with a man who is falling in love with her, as her twin.


The screenplay contains contrivances that are to be expected when dealing with this kind of plot and director/writer Jenne LaMarque doesn’t entirely succeed in selling it. That being said, the screenplay exhibits some darkly comic and intelligent touches – Laurel attends a “Twins Without Twins” support group, a cover version of the Tootsie theme song plays during the end credits and as Laurel finally learns to be happy in her own skin, she quits art-imitation and starts to paint some originals.

theprettyone1That the film is so watchable is largely attributable to Kazan, who movingly conveys Laurel’s predicament and desperation to be more like Audrey. (Her wardrobe is also highly enviable). Also, praise-worthy are Johnson, of Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies and New Girl fame, putting in another relaxed, likeable and comedic performance, whose warmth and charm convince Laurel to confront her façade. And Lynch, the father who struggles to come to terms with the loss of his two daughters, and exhibiting genuine pathos as he does so.

Verdict: At times laboured and contrived, this otherwise cute film transforms a dark (and potentially sociopathic) premise into a charismatic and heartfelt story of self-discovery.


Hollywood hitting a wall?


Once upon a time there existed such a thing – an institution, a marvel, an industry – as silent cinema. The transition from this mute art form to the sounds of actor’s voices that mark our movies today was supposedly characterised by chaos, upheaval, rapidity – the sudden realisation that sound was the way forward! (As depicted in the beloved film Singin’ in the Rain). Such is the film industry’s propensity for dramatization.

And now it appears that much the same rhetoric is being employed in regard to Hollywood. The glittering, gold-mine of movie stars and moguls, big budgets and even bigger egos, could potentially be usurped by a different system.

Indeed, legendary filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have recently diagnosed the terminal condition of this beloved filmmaking industry. (For a full interview, click here).


They speak about the ‘Going for the Gold’ gambling mentality (and reality) which will inevitably be its undoing. Hollywood are betting on a few large-scale $250-million blockbusters every year. Sooner or later, say the directing duo, the entire industry will go bust when those few large expensive feature films flop, and the entire industry will be re-defined.

“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

Such evidence can be found in massive flops like John Carter, Green Lantern or the 3D Mars Needs Moms which all lost something in the ballpark figure of $100million. This slew of un-savvy investments could certainly spell the death knell for the industry.

Spielberg points out the seemingly inevitable conservatism of the movie industry in the face of expanding content choices: “You’re at the point right now where a studio would rather invest $250 million in one film for a real shot at the brass ring than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal – and even maybe historical – projects that may get lost in the shuffle.”

He lamented that it’s becoming harder and harder for even brand-name filmmakers to get their projects into movie theatres. In fact Lincoln – you know, that Oscar-winning, $180million-making, historical biopic – was intended for HBO. And if Spielberg is having a hard-time convincing studios to get behind him, imagine how tough emerging talent will find it to break into the industry.

TV is fast becoming the way to go, with a recent glut of big name actors popping up in TV series; Claire Danes in Homeland, Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, Laura Linney in The Big C, Diane Kruger in The Bridge, the list could go on.

It hardly seems surprisingly considering that TV shows are starting to exhibit a lot more integrity, variety and genius than the film studios, which have recently churned out duds like The Lone Ranger, After Earth, White House Down and Pacific Rim. The Lone Ranger costing Disney more than $200 million to produce and took in $29million on its opening weekend at the box office. 

Spielberg suggests that, soon, Hollywood’s rose-tinted glasses may take a turn for clarity, when it edges further and further toward bankruptcy. And will ultimately forced to change its corporate ways. That change might include: movie-going becoming a rarer, more special and more expensive occasion – likening itself to the theatre; movies being released in all formats, everywhere, at the same time; and most movies coming to us via online services. This, the pair suggest, will mean a bright future for movie-makers with a particular vision – they will be able to make a living out of globally aggregated niche audiences.

And whilst that may very well be the only way to sustain, or resuscitate a floundering business model, it seems somewhat poignant that such a favoured pastime will be reduced to a ‘birthday treat’, or to laptop screens only as more and more people undoubtedly revert to downloading their entertainment.

When this door closes, another one might open – independent films may rise in popularity – but if greed sends Hollywood to the grave, it should be a lesson to us all that mainstream isn’t always the way to go.