Interview: MASTERS OF SEX’s Michael Sheen

October 3, 2013

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In the 1950s, sex wasn’t really something that was discussed in the halls of academia. Well, not until Dr William Masters and his research assistant Virginia Johnson decided to boldly go where few scientists had gone before.

Leading a research team that explored both the physical and psychological areas of sexual behaviour, Masters and Johnson became synonymous with the subject, penning bestselling books and eventually establishing their own institute dedicated to further investigating and understanding human sexuality.

And now the story of the pair and their groundbreaking work is being brought to television in Masters of Sex, a candid, intelligent and emotionally resonant 12-episode drama.

The fraught and fascinating dynamic between the curious but repressed Masters (played by Michael Sheen) and the more liberated and forthright Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) is the foundation of the series, but it delves just as deeply into the social conventions – both public and private – of the era, making it an interesting snapshot of a time gone by and a prism through which the audience can perhaps regard how far we may have come in the decades since.

For the acclaimed, award-winning Sheen, renowned for his portrayals of real-life individuals like UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and the late television journalist David Frost, bringing Masters to life was an exercise in emotional extremes.

“There are so many contradictions to be explored in the material, and especially when it comes to Masters,” he said.

“He’s a man whose work takes huge steps forward, particularly in terms of women’s sexuality and gender politics, but he’s also a product of his time and his upbringing when it comes to his relationships with women.

“And he’s a man who is a pioneer in researching a subject about which he himself has so little knowledge and about which he doesn’t feel confident in his own life.”

Control is a key element for the man, says Sheen – “he seeks to control his environment, the people around him and even himself” – and the sense of control he has begins to erode when Virginia Johnson, a twice-divorced mother of two, enters his life, professionally and gradually on a more personal level.

“I think from Masters’ point of view he is both attracted and repelled by what Virginia represents,” said Sheen.

“He has reinvented himself in order to be what he needs to be so he can pursue what he needs to pursue, and whether he’s aware of it or not there’s an inauthentic quality to his life. He has chosen things with his head more than his heart.

“Then Virginia comes along and appeals to part of his make-up that he hasn’t really listened to very much, and that starts to undo certain things in his life.

“He welcomes that prospect on a subconscious level but on a conscious level he is terrified by it and will resist it as much as he can. It makes for a very interesting and conflicted relationship, which is the best kind for a story like this.”

The tug of war between conscious and unconscious desires is a prevalent theme throughout Masters of Sex, and Sheen found himself intrigued by what drew Masters to the study of sexuality.

“There were all kinds of reasons,” he said. “Masters was a hugely ambitious and driven man, and this was an area he knew he could be a pioneer in. It was a real risk, because being as controversial as it was it could ruin him, but it could also be the making of his career.”

Professional ambitions aside, Sheen feels Masters wanted to overcome his own fears and misunderstandings about sex.

“His early research was all about separating the emotional and psychological aspects of sex and focusing purely on physicality, and I think that was a reflection of his own fear.

“But as frightened as he was, there must be a part of him that wants to fight that fear, because he’s not a happy man at the beginning of this story.”

Society’s views of sexuality may appear to have moved ahead in leaps and bounds since the period depicted in Masters of Sex. But it remains a touchy subject in a great many ways.

“In the ‘50s, the topic was whether it should be discussed at all, whereas now it’s about how it should be discussed,” said Sheen.

“We’re saturated these days with opinions and imagery and information but it’s all been extremely commercialised – we’re overtly or covertly being sold products or lifestyles or values, whatever it might be, with sexuality as the vessel. And that can be as dangerous or confusing as having no information.

“So I think there’s an opportunity with a series like this to discuss all that, with the time period of the ‘50s acting as kind of a buffer. Masters of Sex is about who we are now, how we got here and where we’re going.”


Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space: GRAVITY

October 2, 2013

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Anticipation is high for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and deservedly so – it’s an intimate and richly emotional story, almost primal in its themes and ideas, but told on a scale that’s both grand and hushed.

The technical virtuosity displayed by the Children of Men director, with invaluable assistance by that film’s gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, is breathtaking stuff, with the opening shot one unbroken take that lasts 15 minutes or so, swirling and swooping through space, introducing the characters while providing an array of viewpoints that lay out the shining beauty and intimidating vastness of the environment they’re negotiating.

I’m normally in two minds about such shots – I can appreciate and even admire the ambition and diligence that goes into their planning and execution but sometimes find myself a little detached by their showiness. It can seem more like a clip for a showreel than something that actually enhances the storytelling or moves the plot forward. But Gravity’s opening sequence moves with such languid, lyrical beauty while offering the audience with information it needs to know that it pretty much sets a new benchmark in this regard. It’s a magnificent start to a movie.

The story is a simple one. A mission 650 or so kilometres above the earth is thrown into jeopardy when catastrophic damage to a satellite sets off a chain reaction resulting in debris hurtling through the void at high speed. The shuttle that was giving scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) their ride home is destroyed; the ensuing turmoil sees the pair untethered and floating free in space.

And you thought you had a bad day at work

And you thought you had a bad day at work

There are still space stations nearby but there are several factors to take into account – reaching them, hoping they remain undamaged, coping with the ongoing waves of “space shrapnel”, navigating their way back home. Every minute presents a new challenge. And as the film states at the very beginning: “Life in space is impossible.”

Gravity is thrilling in ways I’d almost forgotten movies could be. I didn’t realise how inured I’d become to 3D, thanks to wave after wave of shitty post-conversion jobs that added close to nothing to the experience, until I found myself flinching as scraps of metal flew towards me.

But that trickery is only one small part of the overall effect it had. Cuaron expertly modulates the tension, building to crescendos before offering brief periods of relief, then starting the process all over again. It’s masterful. (And mention must be made of Steven Price’s score, lushly and stirringly orchestral at times, propulsive and foreboding at others.)

But it’s a human story first and foremost, a story about the will to live. There’s an old adage about storytelling that you put a character in a tree and then proceed to throw rocks at them for 90 minutes – that’s why Gravity does, and does well.

But if you don’t care about the character being pelted with rocks, what’s the point? Caring about Stone and Kowalski is easy, partially due to the deft, effective screenplay by Cuaron and his son Jonas but mainly because of some very astute casting and a pair of truly strong performances.

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Clooney’s relaxed charm and underlying air of confidence and capability (he’s essentially playing Liz Lemon’s dream date, Astronaut Mike Dexter) provides an ideal counterbalance to the reserve, panic and ultimate resolve shown by Bullock, who gives a performance that quietly, subtly runs the gamut of emotion. She’s incredible. So is Gravity. See it on the biggest screen you can, then go see it again.


Jeff Bridges, man.

September 4, 2013

I interviewed one of my damn idols for TheMusic.com.au but as per usual I waffled on too much and they had to cut a few paragraphs so it’d fit on the page. If you must have 100 or so more words of said waffle, here now is the complete, unexpurgated Jeff Bridges chat.

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Devotees of The Big Lebowski tend to know Jeff Bridges as The Dude; devotees of great acting tend to regard Jeff Bridges as The Man. For more than four decades, he’s been turning out performances that range from richly funny to intensely emotional – sometimes he’s subtle to the point of microscopic, sometimes he chews great chunks out of the scenery. For years, though, he was regarded as a terrific but somewhat undervalued actor who could never quite make the leap to full-blown stardom. Maybe it was his tendency to place his characters above his own persona – the great film critic Pauline Kael once said Bridges “may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived”.

Bridges is still a character actor, but he’s also finally getting his due – his performance as dissolute country singer Bad Blake in 2009’s Crazy Heart earned him an Academy Award, his performance as the equally boozy lawman Rooster Cogburn in True Grit saw him nominated for the same award the following year. And one can see echoes of those distinctive turns in his work as Roy Pulsipher, a grizzled Old West marshal now stalking the afterlife, doling out justice to wrongdoers who refuse to stay dead, in the supernatural action-comedy R.I.P.D. (as in Rest in Peace Department).

Roy’s the very best at bringing the dead back alive, so to speak, so he’s a little reluctant to find himself partnered with an R.I.P.D. rookie in the form of recently-killed cop Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds). But the pair may be the only ones who can stop an army of undead lowlifes from making Earth a living hell…or, you know, un-living hell.

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“It’s a bizarre premise, but I like bizarre premises,” chuckles Bridges in his inimitably laid-back fashion. “I remember when someone pitched me the project, I couldn’t quite grasp what they were talking about. Then I read the script and I had to keep going back a page or two and saying ‘Did I just read what I read?’ Something like that is certainly attractive to me. And then when you’ve got wonderful guys like Ryan and Mary-Louise Parker and Kevin Bacon to play with, well, that makes it even more fun.”

And, of course, Bridges is rarely gonna pass up an opportunity to play a cowboy, even one who’s been dead for 150 or so years. “Whenever I get to wear a cowboy hat, it’s always a good time for me,” he says.

Still, R.I.P.D. is a little more tech-heavy than most cowboy stories – there are your increasingly common lashings of CGI and such bringing the Department’s enemies to life. Bridges is no stranger to special effects, having appeared alongside a massive animatronic ape in the 1976 version of King Kong and alongside a computer-generated version of his younger self in Tron: Legacy. The actor admits he used to be “a bit resentful” of the latest advances, but he’s coming to grips with it.

Despite the hairiness, Bridges did not actually play Kong in the '76 remake

Despite the hairiness, Bridges did not actually play Kong in the ’76 remake. (Also, Jessica Lange was a STONE FOX.)

“I’ve come to realise it’s a bit like playing pretend when you’re a kid – you have to use your imagination more,” he says. “It’s easier to go with the flow than just sit around being mad at it.”

Now in his early sixties, Bridges continues to keep busy (he’s got the fantasy adventure Seventh Son coming out early next year), but acting’s just one string to his bow – he’s also an accomplished musician and photographer. Quite frankly, though, he’s often happy just to chill.

“It’s a funny thing – I generally kind of resist working,” he laughs. “I know I’m going to be away from my wife; I know my dance card will be full and I’ll be missing out on other things, even if I don’t know what they are. So I resist engaging until something as wacky as R.I.P.D. comes along and floats my boat, man.”

Man, no one says ‘man’ like Jeff Bridges.


Review: FURIOUS SIX

June 7, 2013

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People, we need to talk about Dwayne Johnson’s arms.

They’ve gone a few inches beyond the requisite ‘guns’ sported by your typical action hero. In fact, they’re more reminiscent of cannons.

Seriously, the man formerly known as The Rock can’t even lay them flat at his sides anymore. They stick out at a 45-degree angle, like chicken wings or something.

I meant it as a compliment, Dwayne. Please don't hurt me

I meant it as a compliment, Dwayne. Please don’t hurt me

I say this not out of any untoward sense of admiration (well, maybe a little envy) but because Johnson’s physique is kind of representative of Fast & Furious 6, the latest instalment of the high-octane film franchise in which he co-stars.

They’re both pumped-up to a ridiculous degree. Ridiculous, I tell you!

And just as Johnson steamrolls through the movie like a Sherman tank (seriously, he’s a great addition to the series), Furious Six – the actual title, according to the opening credits – crashes right through any cynicism you may have and barrels directly into the part of your brain yearning for some big, dumb fun.

With the equally entertaining Fast Five, the franchise reinvented itself as a hotted-up heist caper – a pedal-to-the-metal Ocean’s Eleven.

This time around, though, it zooms past anything resembling reality to become something more akin to a superhero adventure. It’s The Avengers with a shitload of speeding tickets.

And it works. It works like crazy.

Yeah, this happens

Yeah, this happens

At the screening I attended, the audience burst into applause no less than five times when the saga’s motley crew of daredevil drivers defied the laws of physics to pull off some audacious stunt.

The story? Oh, it’s something to do with said motley crew – led by gravel-voiced hulk Dom (Vin Diesel, surprisingly charming at times) and lawman-gone-rogue Brian (Paul Walker, wooden as always but functional nevertheless) – being recruited by Johnson’s no-nonsense federal agent Hobbs to track down and take down the villainous Shaw (Luke Evans, not quite villainous enough).

In his quest to steal the various parts of some super-weapon, Shaw has hand-picked a crack team of bad guys…including Dom’s ex-girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, fitting right back in), who was supposedly killed in the fourth film.

"There's no escape, is there?"

“There’s no escape, is there?”

Nope, she just got amnesia, it seems! But even though she’s gone to the dark side, Dom won’t abandon her.

After all, she’s part of the makeshift Fast & Furious family…and as Dom points out about 300 times during the movie, you don’t turn your back on family.

Yes, it’s cheesy. But it also balances that cheesiness with a likeable sincerity and a winning self-awareness. And stunts. Lots and lots of stunts.


“This is my design”: Why HANNIBAL tastes so good

May 31, 2013

Hannibal, the television series devised by the unreasonably talented Bryan Fuller, has been renewed for a second season, and I couldn’t be happier. This ‘Trailer Trash’ column I wrote for Inpress magazine attempts to explain why:

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Ridley Scott’s 2001 film Hannibal was an ugly, unwieldy mess. The television series Hannibal, on the other hand, is elegant, hypnotic and compulsively watchable – maybe it says more about me than I care to admit, but I’ve had the episodes that have aired to date playing on a near-constant loop in the background. (I will of course press pause to watch Celebrity Splash because, hey, who wouldn’t do that?)

Now, for a while there I fell back on my customary reasoning as to why one Hannibal works and the other doesn’t – the film made the fatal flaw of assuming that cannibalistic shrink Dr Hannibal Lecter is a lead rather than a supporting character; the series makes him a member of an ensemble – but as the story has progressed and Lecter has become more and more prevalent, that theory seems to hold less and less water.

So why has Hannibal sunk its claws so deep into my imagination? (As it may yours if you give it a whirl, and you really should. It’s currently airing on Seven…or you could obtain it other ways, but you didn’t hear that from me.)

For one, I’m an easy mark for terrific performances…which can sometimes be different from terrific acting. The two, of course, can and often do go hand in hand. In Hannibal’s case, there’s theatricality to the performances by the wonderfully well-selected core cast that catches the eye and the ear –the bone-deep weariness and trembling vulnerability of Hugh Dancy’s FBI investigator Will Graham, blessed and cursed with “pure empathy” that allows him to slip into the skins of brutal serial killers; the chilly precision of Mads Mikkelsen’s Lecter (this is a real casting coup; the angular planes of the actor’s face are beautiful and terrifying) – but it’s complemented by the desire for human connection both characters have and both actors convey subtly and sensitively (yes, even in Lecter’s case – he’s a manipulative, murderous monster, and Hannibal never lets you forget that, but there’s some form of a soul under the formal demeanour and impeccably-tailored suits).

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The same goes for Laurence Fishburne as Graham’s superior. Fishburne’s forceful presence has made him a go-to for authority figures in recent years, and the series uses it effectively, but then there are also scenes between Fishburne and Firefly’s equally great Gina Torres (the real-life husband and wife play a loving, long-married couple) that are as tender, honest and heart-rending as anything I’ve seen recently.

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That’s what it boils down to for me. Hannibal is a horror show, undoubtedly – there are grotesque crime-scene tableaux and depictions of violence that reset the benchmark for commercial television, so be warned – but going hand-in-hand with that gruesome aspect of the series is a constant awareness of the preciousness and precariousness of life and the dread and sorrow that can accompany it being snuffed out violently or sucked away gradually.

It’s why Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs remains resonant and haunting two decades on while the likes of Scott’s Hannibal or Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon have all but faded from memory. Hannibal understands and expresses it, all the while suffusing the series with an incredible visual and aural style (watch for Shining references!) and even a slyly perverse wit. I mean, the elaborate gourmet meals Lecter serves to his guests may have some questionable ingredients but goddamn if they don’t make one’s mouth water.


Review: THE GREAT GATSBY

May 29, 2013

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There are moments in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation – or maybe interpretation is a better term – of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby when the Australian filmmaker seems to get it just right.

A sense of yearning to recapture the glories of the past. A tantalising feeling of hope that such a thing is within reach. A deeply-buried fear that it actually isn’t.

Sadly, there are precious few of those moments. For all his intricate detailing and obvious good intentions, Luhrmann stumbles quite dramatically here.

He appears to have a rudimentary understanding of what The Great Gatsby is about but his ways of expressing it vary from clumsily to broadly.

Worst of all, however, he’s made a film that is downright dull and sluggish for long periods.

In his efforts to pay tribute to Fitzgerald’s work and era while making something ‘relevant’ to modern viewers, he’s packed every frame with audacious imagery and incident and filled the soundtrack with a mix of music old and new.

About half the movie is a variation on this image

About half the movie is a variation on this image

That’s Luhrmann’s style, of course, and while it worked a treat in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and, to a slightly lesser degree, Moulin Rouge, it only acts as a flimsy facade here.

Maybe that’s the point, though. Maybe Luhrmann is trying to say that the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age’s festivities was a vain, desperate attempt to mask something hollow or absent, both in society and in the wealthy, mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws the wildest parties around.

But the filmmaker isn’t quite attuned enough to the more muted frequencies of wounded, melancholy souls to convey that kind of thing.

Luhrmann has always tended to work in broad strokes, and The Great Gatsby requires a more delicate and nuanced touch, even if its story – revolving around Gatsby’s heartfelt but deluded and futile efforts to win back Daisy (Carey Mulligan), the woman he loved and lost – is essentially a simple, straightforward one.

Luckily, he has DiCaprio, who pulls off the quite miraculous feat of staying in step with his director’s outsized approach while locating and articulating the genuine, unvarnished nature of his character.

Yeah, you know you did good

Yeah, you know you did good

It’s a truly intelligent and insightful performance, and quite possibly the one thing that saves The Great Gatsby from utter triviality.


Review: THE HANGOVER PART III

May 22, 2013

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The Hangover movies have been remarkably popular, and it’s not hard to understand why.

They’ve shown a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for pushing the envelope when it comes to outrageousness.

And they’ve provided a great showcase for some talented, uninhibited comic performers, primarily Zach Galifianakis, making the most of the juicy role of the perpetually awkward and inappropriate Alan.

It's true, Zach, we had some good times

It’s true, Zach, we had some good times

But while it can be important for a comedy to have both wild and wacky situations and characters that one can relate to and even care about, I have to wonder: does anyone really care about the Hangover bros all that much?

Or do we just want to see them make a bunch of bad decisions under the influence of mind-altering, memory-wiping substances and then frantically try to piece together the shambles of the night before?

With The Hangover Part III, it appears it’s the former.

Apparently we’re supposed to have embraced Alan and his ‘Wolfpack’ buddies Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) to our hearts over the course of these movies.

Where's an out-of-control truck when you need one?

Where’s an out-of-control truck when you need one?

So when they find themselves in peril at the hands of belligerent crime boss Marshall (John Goodman, phoning it in), who’s been ripped off by unofficial Wolfpacker Mr Chow (Ken Jeong), the stakes are seemingly raised.

It’s not just drunken, druggy shenanigans anymore; it’s life or death.

And as I watched Part III unfold, my main reaction was ‘Yeah, so?’

That said, the disinterest I felt watching this movie seemed to be mirrored by what was happening onscreen.

Cooper and Helms go through the motions professionally but one can almost feel them watching the clock, waiting for the opportunity to get this over with and move on to something new.

And while Galifianakis still puts plenty of effort into making Alan a walking bundle of weirdness, it’s easy to get the impression there’s not much left in his bag of tricks as far as this character is concerned.

Don't give me that look, Zach. You know what you did

Don’t give me that look, Zach. You know what you did

There’s the occasional fun moment here but The Hangover Part III seems more into wrapping up what it mistakenly views as an epic trilogy than making its audience laugh.

As a result, it’s not so much a celebration as…well, an obligation. Disappointing, really.