29 July 2011

At the Cinema: Last Night

Last Night (Massy Tadjedin/2010) USA/90mins. *****

Last Night sees love as a many splintered thing. The usual rough falls and furtive heights are carefully detailed, but never conveyed as something to be simplistically dwelt upon. This type of curious drama is a tried and tested cinematic arena, sure, but new angles and fresh avenues can still be opened up on screen for yet another film tackling the infinite possibilities aroused by love, lust and the question of fidelity. The four central lust-struck wanderers here certainly haven’t been beaten with the ugly stick, nor do they want for much materially, but inside (their four walls, their own brittle hearts) they pine for something more, something else.

One relationship gets analysed by its two participants; four searching souls make up the film’s cast. Joanna and Michael Reed (Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington) are a possibly, probably happily married Manhattan couple who both succumb to emotional and/or sexual temptations – of the mind and/or the flesh – across one night when Michael goes on a business trip to Philadelphia: he is with work colleague Laura (Eva Mendes); she bumps into old flame Alex (Guillaume Canet). We see them together, then apart, and then with others – the lustful bags of flesh which dominate their uncertain minds.

In an argument (before he goes off, but after she suspects something unsavoury is possibly afoot) Joanna abruptly demands Michael look at her directly after she asks a probing, loaded question as to his whereabouts. It’s a universally particular trait familiar to anyone with any experience of the construction of relationships (or even to anyone savvy enough to second-guess any meaning behind a successful screen depiction of relationships). This is suggestive of her intuitive yet easily suspicious nature: can she know whether he’s lying or not from the way he reacts facially? Knightley is either creatively adlibbing or interpreting the script with precise, knowing nuance. The actors understand the (il)logic within the desperate need to verbalise suspicions, and the lack of surety an answer might provide.

Tadjedin’s direction observes both actors’ faces. She unobtrusively switches perspectives when she needs to – and in an inquisitive way that posits both characters as either possible liars or victims of love’s hazy, messy toil. This kind of detail is vital to the way Last Night succeeds as a measured yet scrutinising exploration of the ins and outs of marriage. Pregnant pauses and half-started or -finished sentences both reveal a great deal about the tangles of suspicion, they mine deep into what a couple experiences after the thrill of fresh togetherness has evaporated.

Every creative attribute works to the film’s advantage. The evocative and uncharacteristically pared down score by Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) expertly underlines the film’s visual drama; Peter Deming’s (Mulholland Dr., Married Life) photography gives expensive shimmer to the high-end locations, but adds a bleak blanket of light to the early-hours NY streets like no one else in the last five years. Similarly, Susan E. Morse (Woody Allen’s one-time long-time go-to editor) shapes the city with a brisk, fuss-free tenor, and despite her certain geographical familiarity, she still exerts freshness and vigour in her cutting. (God knows why she hasn’t been asked to work on an Allen film in quite some time.) On screen, Knightley is fully, confidently at ease with the light meet-ups and the fraught drama - and Canet, alongside her, adds his own brand of smooth charm. It’s refreshing to see Worthington embrace an intricate character study again – long after he did similar work in Somersault and so soon after his triple dull thud of Terminator: Salvation, Avatar and Clash of the Titans. But Mendes, in the most unassuming role, is quietly revelatory. She makes her limited time onscreen count in subtly moving ways.

Last Night understands what a night away, a night in the city, might mean to people who question their possibly shaky positions in regard to love and loss. It understands the simple and relevant things of human drama. To some it might have the appearance of an advertisement for an unfeasibly expensive lifestyle product. But just because the surroundings are luxurious doesn’t necessarily mean that the emotional carnage wreaked is less or insignificant. The quartet here subtly and convincingly excavate their four corners of relationship desire and damage. Tadjedin’s film rests or falls on their interpretation. It's cheering that not only they, but the crew of talented filmmakers behind them, get it right.

24 July 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Alice Braga

This week my "Take Three" column (every Sunday, three write-ups on three performances in a supporting/character actor's career) over at The Film Experience features Alice Braga in Blindness, City of God and I Am Legend.

Take One: Blindness (2008) As per the José Saramago novel that Blindness is based on, no characters have names in the film, thus Braga is known only as ‘Woman with Dark Glasses’. (Julianne Moore is ‘Doctor’s Wife’; Danny Glover is ‘Man with Black Eye Patch’ etc.) She’s one of a gathering of randomly afflicted people who succumb to a mysterious blindness epidemic. All the cast, however big or small the role, collaboratively convey the exact amount of conviction in their roles. They remain true to their characters’ physical, psychological and emotional positions each step of the way. There’s a defiant ‘all in it together’ aspect, in which each actor instinctively plays off one another in rewarding ways, not least when it comes to Braga...

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17 July 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Michael Biehn

This week my "Take Three" column (every Sunday, three write-ups on three performances in a supporting/character actor's career) over at The Film Experience features Michael Biehn in The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss.

The 1980s. Male. Character actor. Sci-fi. Aliens from deep, dark space and the deep blue sea and robots from the future. All under the tutelage of James Cameron.

Take One: The Terminator (1984) It’s a good thing the T-800 didn’t find Sarah Connor any sooner than he did. He would’ve consequently deprived us of all that full-throttle Biehn action and indeed made The Terminator a very short movie, nay, franchise. (Found her! The end.) As the main man from future times, resistance fighter Sgt. Kyle Reese is electrically plonked down butt-naked from post-apocalyptic LA, circa 2029, to present-day 1984 to protect poor baffled Linda Hamilton. Biehn delivers a sturdy yet tender supporting turn. The Austrian Oak was obviously the big draw but this film triggered Biehn's signature part: the slightly wracked, occasionally cracked and often knackered hero...

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13 July 2011

Hit Me with Your Best Shot: ALIENS (1986)

"Hit Me with Your Best Shot" is an ongoing series - in which one favourite or exceptional shot from a film is discussed, praised, shown love and mulled over - at Nathaniel Rogers' The Film Experience site.

This time it's war. This time it's Aliens.

Sigourney Weaver, as Warrant Officer Lt. Ellen Ripley, is afforded many great close-ups in Aliens. And as well she should. At the point in the film when my HMwYBS pick (below) occurs, she’s just taken on another species entirely, with only limited military assistance (after being the sole survivor of another, earlier xenomorphic catastrophe), and has near succeeded in doing exactly what she, well, didn’t actually ever intend to do in the first place, but gets done anyway. Way to go. Ripley’s no slacker. She is the Alien universe figurehead. She deserves a solo shot or fifteen to cement her singular importance.

It's this shot...

...that's, to me, in a way indicative of what Aliens is essentially about. It's the look of one mother to another: your kid hurt my kid... so now it’s payback time. The shot perfectly and rather urgently (lit, as it is, with simple and dramatically moist flair by Adrian Biddle) contains, in Ripley’s battle-hardened yet (at that point) serenely accepting face, a plainly defiant Don’t fuck with me’ glare. She's thinking: ‘Oh, I am going to do this and you aren’t going to stop me’.'This' being a proper alien flame-grilling.

It’s the moment when – having just rescued her “replacement daughter” Newt right after a time of immense personal loss and struggle, and after having seemingly mentally planned a feasible escape route in her mind – Ripley decides to continue fighting instead of giving up. Everything’s stacked against her – triumph is seemingly tenuous for a spell – but our Ripley’s never been a quitter. And she doesn’t intend to start now.

What’s she got to lose, stuck in a sticky situation as she is. She can either: a) blast the alien queen and her eggs with a pulse rifle-flamethrower combo and hope for the best, or b) blast the alien queen and her eggs with a pulse rifle-flamethrower combo and expect the worst.

She’s focused, steely-eyed and, well, calm actually. It’s all in that little decisive tilt of her head. Maybe Ripley was actually going to drop weapons, grab Newt and run for her life. Maybe she was going to throw the acid-dashed carcass of a recently chest-deprived work colleague across the room in the hope that the aliens’ attentions get temporarily diverted so she could make a mad lunge for the door. But I reckon that something mysterious prior to that little head tilt decided it for her. It was Ripley thinking, ‘Fuck it – I am gonna blast the alien queen and her eggs with a pulse rifle-flamethrower combo.’

So then she does just that:

It’s ultimately all about motherly protection (Aliens’ working title was indeed ‘Mother’) and human survival. It’s entirely feasible to assume that one thing Ripley nearly does in that shot, just prior to her incinerating every xenomorph within a 20-yard radius, is back away quietly. Although she knew neither herself nor Newt (nor Hicks and half of Bishop) would survive. It's not pretty. It's not fair. But the decision was made long ago – 57 years ago, in fact. It's a human mother's story – and in the end nobody wants a facehugger accessory. And nobody puts Ripley in the corner. 

As a bonus shot (or shot series/sequence), there's also this, below, which is another favourite moment in the film. However, do keep in mind that Aliens itself, as a whole, from start to finish, is one long staggering 'best bit'.

Ripley: They cut the power.
Hudson: What do you mean, "they" cut the power? How could they cut the power, man? They're animals!


10 July 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Melissa McCarthy

This week my "Take Three" column (every Sunday, three write-ups on three performances in a supporting/character actor's career) over at The Film Experience features Melissa McCarthy in The Nines, The Back-Up Plan and Bridesmaids.

Take One: The Nines (2007) The three things that struck me most about the twisty-turny Ryan Reynolds sci-fi drama were Melissa McCarthy. (Reynolds’ much-bared torso came a close fourth). In the film’s three loose-linked segments she plays: Margaret, a perky PR handler; Melissa, a TV actress version of ‘Melissa McCarthy’; and Mary, a housewife. There’s plenty of mystical musings about 9s being everywhere and meaning everything – though thankfully not as much number mumbling as there was in The Number 23 – but it sort of makes its own kind of brain-beaten logic by the end...

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9 July 2011

At the Cinema: The Beaver

The Beaver (Jodie Foster/2011) USA/100mins. *****

Mel Gibson puts his all into The Beaver – not just his left hand. His performance is a bold move for an actor not exactly enjoying an all-time career peak right now. I’ve never fully embraced Gibson on screen or off, but some amount of kudos should be directed his way for risking an added level of professional ridicule at this current point in his career. As a toy company executive who flies off the rails in unique fashion – depressed, Gibson’s Walter Black uses the titular puppet as a therapy aid after his wife (Foster) leaves him and everything goes downhill – he just about manages to hold it together, neither knowingly winking at the audience in a I-know-this-is-dumb manner or going for fully immersive Oscar-grabbing theatrics. Even so, the film is little more than a bland, meandering drama with an upfront narrative conceit that, however initially diverting, doesn’t entirely sustain two-thirds of its running time. As with Gibson, some kudos should perhaps go to Foster, who hasn’t directed a film in fifteen years – since 1995’s generic Thanksgiving comedy Home for the Holidays – and hasn’t acted in an entirely satisfying film in well over a decade. That she decides to make a return to filmmaking with an enervating tale so out-of-sync with much of today’s cinematic offerings is both, in lucrative terms, head-slap baffling and, creatively, admirably headstrong at the same time. But one does have to wonder if, at this stage in her career, she actually really cares too much about all that.

A relatively high-profile venture, The Beaver is such an uncommercial exercise for today’s mainstream movie arena – loaded-to-bursting, as it is, with Hangover-style tomfoolery and bolshy transforming exploditrons – that Foster's (and Gibson’s – they feel like a creative duo here) film could be read as either an attempt at fuck-it-all arthouse-indie crossover posturing, in the guise of a family-centred drama, or a late yet ill-judged stab at cinematic relevance from a pair of previously high-rolling stars grasping at something already well versed, and that neither have much concept of anymore. (An issue similarly affecting Tom Hanks with his recent triple-threat mishap Larry Crowne.) The familial concerns of the narrative – is Gibson’s Walter still a decent father despite his bonkers behaviour? – feel like so much second-hand American Beauty padding (woe-consumed teens and fragile, introverted parentage) that it rarely convinces as enough content to bolster the central premise of one man’s depressive mission to justify himself. The Beaver’s oddly infantile yet uninspired tone makes it slightly less than the idea of Sesame St. meets Magic.

5 July 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Michael Shannon

This week my "Take Three" column (every Sunday, three write-ups on three performances in a supporting/character actor's career) over at The Film Experience features Michael Shannon  in Shotgun Stories, Revolutionary Road and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.

Take One: Shotgun Stories (2007) Shannon looks to be getting the best raves of his career for the ominous apocalyptic mystery Take Shelter, which stunned critics at Sundance and Cannes. It’s the second feature from Jeff Nichols whose debut, Shotgun Stories, also starred Shannon. In that film he plays Son Hayes, the eldest of three brothers along with Kid (Barlow Jacobs) and Boy (Tim Blackwood)  who alternately avoid and pursues conflict with their recently-deceased father’s other family. (Maybe the conflict was originally over the father’s terrible child-naming skills, who knows?) Son is a quiet, intense guy. It seems like fortuitous casting: Shannon, in shape and presence, and with his innate ability to show us exactly what his characters are thinking whilst doing very little, is ideally suited to the role. He brings perceptive silent intelligence to this role of an unlucky man who keeps his cards, and all else, close to his chest. (Son has numerous shotgun-bullet scars on his back and only late in the film do we discover their origins.)

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1 July 2011

Dark Eye Archive: Reconstituted romantic noir at the wine bar in RECONSTRUCTION (2003)

Christoffer Boe’s Reconstruction is a bit like a Lost Highway for the wine bar crowd. Although it’s not half as sleazily compelling as Lynch’s film. It does, though, map out a romantic noir-lite territory quite convincingly and claustrophobically: troubled guy abandons his girlfriend and runs into the endless night; he meets another woman as events get psychologically bonkers. Its take on the artfully-surreal character drama – with added identity-blurring and identity slip-ups to further boggle the mind – gives a half-smile to a line of probable influences (Hitchcock, Chabrol, Rohmer and Haneke all seem likely inspirations), yet it manages to create a worthy impact all its own, even if it’s only partially rewarding. Many scenes – particularly the extended, intentionally baffling opening – feature well-heeled Danish posers perusing the often red-tinted interiors of classy establishments; they endlessly smoke cigarettes in a desultory, moody manner whilst mention of doomed meet-ups, future elopements and such occur. These moments are slightly clichéd, and often feel like they exist to impress the international festival crowd, but it picks up momentum with its twisty turns and fractured events, though not before it falls foul of its potential; ultimately little of interest is made of all the character switching.

Lead Nikolaj Lie Kaas, as Alex the perplexed photographer protagonist, is entirely believable: with the right level of needy panic written across his off-kilter yet rugged good looks he bewilderingly goes out of his mind with rangy accuracy. Better still is Maria Bonnevie in a dual role/performance as the girlfriend and the mysterious woman à la Patricia Arquette’s brunette and blonde enigmas in Highway; there’s also a slight nod to Carol Bouquet’s playful casting in That Obscure Object of Desire. Bonnevie plays the two women as oddly demure (Simone, the girlfriend) and cryptically alluring (Aimee, the stranger); her sadness in one of the two roles is particularly expertly conveyed with memorable sincerity. The fussy, ill-thought-out resolution is rather flat and doesn’t maintain neither the mystery nor the drama aroused earlier in the film, but it does retain some complexity and intrigue all the same. Its aspirant literary classiness makes for some visually intoxicating moments, but also some tonally flat outcomes.