It’s been a little while since our last Film Club (on Tarantino), but we did do something similar on horror films for Halloween in the meantime. This week, there’s an eclectic bunch of films on release including The Butler, The Counsellor, Don Jon and In Fear. That’s an Oscar-contender, a Cormac McCarthy/Ridley Scott collaboration, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, and a British indie horror-thriller. But given the names involved – and particularly since The Counselor and The Butler boast a cast list of Fassbender, Bardem, Cruz, Diaz, Pitt, Whitaker, Carey, Redgrave, Winfrey, Cusack, Fonda, Rickman, Schreiber and others between them – there’s only one topic for it this week.
The ensemble cast has long been a feature of those films that can afford such a luxury, and stems from such usage within theatre. Many of the chosen titles might indeed be adapted from (or suitable as) plays, including musicals, but the medium no longer restricts such privileges to these genres. McCarthy and Scott’s film is a thriller, for example, but we are now used to experiencing such charisma-overload and vying for screen time/attention in teenage films (e.g. Harry Potter), family films (Pirates of the Caribbean), sci-fi (Inception), fantasy (X-Men: First Class), romance (Love Actually), comedy (This is the End), western (Django Unchained), crime (Now You See Me) and so on.
We also come to expect it from any given animation through voiceover and the same is true of documentaries even, depending on the subject. Perhaps the genre most protected against star ensembles is horror given the likelihood of death, although even this has its exceptions (Zombieland, Scream, Shaun of the Dead – light/comedy-horrors, admittedly). As for our writers, there are no restrictions. The brief is simple: your favourite ensembles, whatever that may encompass and however you choose to interpret it. And here are the answers given…
I’ve chosen two films from a modern master of the ensemble cast: Paul Thomas Anderson. Both are epic in their themes and storytelling. Both are brilliant.
Boogie Nights tells the story of Dirk Diggler and his rise and fall in porn’s Golden Age. The cast is headed up by Mark Wahlberg in an early (and well-acted) role. There’s a plethora of excellent performances from actors such as John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore and Burt Reynolds (the latter two were Oscar-nominated).
Magnolia intertwines a mosaic of stories of dysfunctional characters in search of happiness, forgiveness and meaning. There are more wonderful performances from several Boogie Nights alumni (Hoffman, Macy, Moore, Reilly) but there’s strong support from Felicity Huffman, Melora Walters, Jason Robards and Tom Cruise (also Oscar-nominated).
These two films are sprawling, complex, intelligent, humorous, dark, ambitious, unforgiving, beautiful, thought-provoking and extraordinary portrayals of humankind in all its guises.
Sometimes, however – in the hands of a competent director/writer – ensemble casts get the chance to dazzle. For me the greatest ensemble film of all time is Luis Bunuel’s surrealist masterpiece El Angel Exterminador. It’s a pretentious choice, I admit, but I can’t think of a film that handles such a large cast of characters quite so resourcefully. Through the communal plight of this wonderful ensemble of bourgeois peculiarities, Bunuel grants us an insight into the distant lives of the upper classes that is all but unparalleled in contemporary cinema.
Another great example is John Carpenter’s horror classic The Thing, in which a group of male researchers in the Antarctic are hunted by a horrifying alien life form. The characters aren’t fully-fleshed but Carpenter ensures that each of them serves a distinct purpose in the battle for survival, thus turning his story into a terrifying allegory on death. It’s a fine example of a film in which each character drives the story and gives it real depth and meaning.
My choices are most certainly related to the theatrical, with one adapted from a David Mamet play and another which could certainly be presented in this alternative format (though it would lose a little from the New York cinematography backdrop).
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and Margin Call (2011) are, first and foremost, excellent productions. The two films possess superb dialogue, explore fascinating themes and are wonderfully performed. It’s no surprise then that each has a stellar cast, with the brilliant Kevin Spacey acting as the commonality between the two in this respect.
The former also features Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin and Ed Harris, as well as perhaps the greatest cameo of all-time by a scene-stealing Alec Baldwin. With Pacino in the mix, you might fear that his status would threaten to over-awe the others, but you’d be wrong. It’s a perfect ensemble.
The latter in many ways resembles a modern-day version of the former, with both films looking at the unsavoury aspects of [big] business. Margin Call examines the moments when the financial crisis first hit. The likes of Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons join Spacey in a tense, brutal, honest and provoking film which is criminally underrated.
I chose The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which is a film about a group of British pensioners moving to a retirement hotel in India and finding that the real Marigold Hotel is very different from the luxury hotel they were promised.
The ensemble cast list reads like a list of who’s who of British acting royalty and includes Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup and Dev Patel.
The screen time is very equitably shared and each character is a detailed study of a unique individual, with all their strengths and weaknesses, foibles and prejudices. I loved the depth, richness and complexity of the relationships/marriages depicted, which are shown in all their darkness and light.
The film captures the beauty of India – the chaos, the colours, the sounds, the smells, the hustle and bustle, its sheer energy and life. And I loved the optimism that ran right the way through and its upbeat ending. Joyful.