1 November 2009

Oh the horror! - A random roundup

Being the Halloween season I thought a quick horror film roundup would be in order. I’ve selected randomly out of the films I’ve seen relatively recently, so the comments tend to flit all over the place – from the cheap, very cheap, and cheerful to thrashed-out sequel quickies, and from ‘70s backwoods treks to franchise reboots. There will be more to come in future, but for now here are some thoughts on 11 random horror flicks to help you while away the final minutes of the witching hour...

I did a double-bill of Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland (Michael A.Simpson/1988/1989). Part 2 was ridiculous fun, being pretty much a replay of the original (which was fine by me), but with Angela now seeming a whole lot darn perkier whilst on her killing spree; the campers themselves abided by the title and were very unhappy indeed, what with all the drills to the head and knives to the gut. I felt a bit sorry for poor, beleaguered Angela this time around - Pamela Springsteen goes about her grisly business with an air of resignation (whether this was intentional or not is open to debate). Part 3 was the same thing all over again, but seemed more of a lazy rehash than a decent enough replay, like Part 2. One after another the killings didn’t come off as significantly varied enough to be either surprising or interesting for a third time, though the ketchup blood, wobbly angles and haphazard structure kept the laughs coming: one camping victim is seen lying dead next to a previous victim even before he’s actually been killed (he pops up alive and well in the following scene). It’s the sign of something good, whatever the weather.

A good look for the trash-strewn streets (an unfortunate passer-by in Street Trash)

Famed camera operator and cinematographer Jim Muro’s (aka J. Michael Muro) only directing effort, Street Trash (1987), was grim, silly fun. A game of catch the severed tramp’s penis, an obese boss chasing the secretary around the office (resulting in an oddly-faked death) and a nifty exploding head moment in the final fight-off all go toward making it a memorable ninety-odd mins. Muro’s control of the camera is as expert as it should be. At one point – after the proprietor of a store that sells the body-melting liquor drinks some of his own stock and stumbles out onto the street to, er, duly melt – the camera does an incredibly showy slow vertical pan-cum-back-flip-cum-somersault, revealing the process of the guy gradually melting as a series of tumbles. It’s the kind of trick that the Coen bros. pull frequently, but here it has a grubby fluidity all its own. Parts of the film were engrossing (it’s shot in a crisp and vibrant manner - oddly opposing the subject matter), and some parts were plain gross, but everything about it was enjoyable. It's a shame Muro hasn't as yet directed again.

Brian Yuzna’s Beyond Re-Animator (2003) was a good threequel after seeing the original Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon/1985) a while back – I missed out on the second instalment, Bride of Re-Animator (1990), so far (to see what happened in between these two). Both have plenty of wonderfully shoddy atmosphere and a ton of ick to go with it. I prefer Yuzna when he’s working strictly from material he’s generated himself (as in his debut, Society (1989)), but he does a good job of reinterpreting Gordon’s initial idea for this third film. The original, now 24 years old, still fully deserves its cultish following.

The infamous Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato/1979) and Creep (2004) director Christopher Smith’s second film Severance (2006), whilst being entirely different in tone, both warn city folk of the terrors of venturing into the wilderness. Holocaust was book-ended with rather dull scenes of awkward exposition, both of which refer to the main thrust of the narrative (a camera crew’s jaunt into the jungle to film a lost tribe of cannibals), which first attempt to point toward the horrors that lie waiting, then to reflect back to them. By the end, the notorious scenes that make up the bulk of the action have come and gone all too quickly to really merit the shocking tag the film has been pegged with all these years. (I checked out the running times of the version I watched with other versions available, and discovered my copy was cut by about 5 mins.) Whether tamed by over-cautious censors or from it having a curiously disjointed, overly dated feel Holocaust seems less than the sum of its parts now. (It's always been a notorious must-see-at-least-once than an outright classic.) The intercutting between the jungle and a city office – where a TV crew watch the footage for later re-assemblage for televising – does create some momentum and tension. There’s some awful dialogue right at the end, which makes what the film was telling us instinctively through imagery blindingly obvious through verbal means, but bad line readings are, for the most part, part of its knackered charm. It’s a film I might revisit in the future - preferably with friends and alcohol, so as to make the experience more fun. It has potential to be better second time around.

Severance, on the other hand, was daftly amusing and appropriately gruesome, despite feeling entirely derivative. Although I’m only superficially comparing it to Holocaust, it pulled similar manoeuvres without any expository bullshit. It isn't really too comparable to that film in any significant way, but after a time there are some parallels between the two: chiefly that both feature angry, almost faceless forest-dwellers intent on bringing down urban interlopers (here an office staff's team-building trip to a remote cabin). It was unofficially marketed as The Office meets Deliverance (1972), but I suspect the film it wants to closely emulate is Shaun of the Dead (2004): the mix of brutal bloodshed with darkly comic sequences owe a debt to Edgar Wright’s film, but it doesn’t feel deliberately imitative (though its innate Britishness – through the minutiae of modern, cringeworthy office types – does rather closely match that of not only Shaun, but also Ricky Gervais’ TV show a bit too smartly). It was a lot more fun than recent stuff that runs along similar, though perhaps more po-faced, lines, such as Hostel (2004). There are some dungeon-set torture scenes that sustain a terrifically creepy feel, which work integrally and fluently with the film, as opposed to being look-at-me highlights (hello, Eli Roth), there to simply show how adept everyone involved is at being sick in a smug, post-modern way, as Roth tried and, in my view, failed to do with his film.

Severance's Danny Dyer finding the right fit at Foot Locker.

Smith manages to make Severance both far more level-headed (in that he seems to know just how to create unnerving set pieces without drawing attention to a too-long list of obvious reference points) and unbelievably stupid. There’s little intellect to the film (and thank god for that; any lofty allusions to cleverness would have sunk the ‘gore ‘n’ grin’ atmosphere straight away), but a masked attempt at topicality with a 9/11 reference, which (literally) backfires. It does have a seen-it-all-before feel, but nowadays this tends to come with the territory in such genre-specific horrors. It has spadefuls of cheeky charm, too, in the form of a few likeable characters – most notably Danny Dyer, as a strung-out, wide-boy computer programmer. He’s often very funny and gets the best lines. Although another character, after tasting an overcooked cake (that, unbeknownst to all, contains a severed human finger) made for the starved staff by another, inept worker, spits it out and replies: “You don’t cook every cake for an hour”. It’s full of many such comic asides that are, more often than not, both humorous and grisly at the same time.

Mother’s Day (Charles Kaufman/1980) was something I’d been wanting to see for a fair while. I caught sight of a photo of the mother of the title, played by Rose Ross, and thought it’d be the kind of thing that would usually win me over (I’m a sucker for deranged matriarchs in horror), and it was only Ross alone who proved to be worth the time here. Apart from her gleefully maniacal face the film was a series of tedious arguments between the mother’s boys, (which aimed for laughs, but weren’t terribly funny) and the three female camping victims, who only ever tried to escape v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. I got quickly bored. The location looked like a novice set designer’s wet dream though: a redneck backwater hovel, graffited to the hilt, and styled into a food-splattered den of bones, trash and varying accouterment. It added some colour and had me scanning the background for fun visual details during the dull moments. There seemed to be a lack of focus as far as the story was concerned - God knows I’m not one for too much actual plot in cheap slasher flicks, but there wasn’t much going on in the way of organised scares, frights or generally gruesome incidents. Though when the much-mentioned freak-of-the-woods Queenie finally jumped out, it pointed to the fact that she should’ve sprung into action a lot sooner. The funniest touch was when one character was smothered to death by an inflatable tit. Lovely.

Cube²: Hypercube's production designer may have forgotten to get his light fittings PAT-tested

Both Cube sequels regularly show up on the Zone Horror channel and I managed to catch both on one of their current runs. Cube²: Hypercube (Andrzej Sekula/2002) and Cube Zero (Ernie Barbarash/2004) take the first film’s plot backwards, forwards and probably sideways, just like the movie’s shifting boxes of death themselves. Hypercube kept the original’s white space look and merely continued the story, neither changing much nor adding a great deal to it in the process. It was still absurd fun though, peppered with some teeth-gratingly awful acting and a few surprise moments (usually involving the silly methods of entrapment that the actors have to wriggle out of). Zero – a prequel, clearly signalled by its title – answered any outstanding queries about back-story, how the cubes function, who’s behind it all, and so on. The look this time was grungy-dungeon just like in the Saw (2004-09) films. It gets points for veering away from the sterile cocoon setting of the two previous films, though I wondered if the filmmakers were consciously aping the Saw franchise’s style for this third film by downgrading to filth chamber locations (a bit of research told me that Zero came out roughly at the same time as the first Saw - their concepts are uncannily similar indeed). The original did this kind of thing first though, back in 1997 - and I’ll gladly take any number of shoddy Cubes over two minutes of Jigsaw and his human pets any day.

I watched Halloween: Resurrection (Rick Rosenthal/2002) chiefly because having seen Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) some years back I wanted to know how a decapitated Michael Myers managed to ‘come home’ for another night of killing (although it’s not as interesting as I’d hoped - we find out in the film’s first 10 mins). I still enjoy a lot about these sequels - some occasionally contain moments worth waiting for. As soon as the plot kicks in, and Jamie Lee Curtis kicks off, it struck me that the filmmakers were eager to cash in on several notable recent-to-its-time horror successes, as if following Carpenter’s original template (and resulting sequels) weren’t enough. The plot is unerringly simple: a selection of students have to spend the night in Myers’ old house for a reality TV show, which has a live internet feed. The Blair Witch Project (1999), Scream (1996) and My Little Eye (2001) can all be ticked off its list of reference points (even Mike Figgis’ four-screen experimental film Timecode (2000) may have been a slight influence, too). Ideas are paraphrased from these films, and stapled together in the script in an attempt to (surely) appeal to the needs of today’s teens’ expansive viewing habits (though if it were released today there would be an obligatory reference to YouTube and/or Facebook thrown in as well). The doomed students are given cameras to film their night of terror, and I thought that, in a conceptual move, the actors themselves were going to film the bulk of the action themselves (as in Blair Witch) to inject some immediacy and freshness, but it all resorts back to obligatory formal camera set-ups and familiarity soon sets in thereafter.

He's behind you! (yet again)

In one respect all this regurgitating of trends is exactly what’s to be expected. The filmmakers here most likely want to keep as current as possible to grab the audience's attention, but maybe it'd be best for them to avoid the blatant and wearisome pandering that occurs here (though there are certainly worse offenders – Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows (2000), for one). The internet/reality TV slant feels belated (even for 2002) and a rather feeble excuse to pick around for zeitgeist. Carpenter’s directly brutal, no-fuss shocks worked a hundred times better in the original of course (from 1978, when this type of slasher flick was finding its legs), but Carpenter hasn’t been involved directly in the franchise since 1981 with Halloween II. Go figure.

There are a few inspired moments though: one has Myers kill a victim using the end of a tripod, camera still attached and filming his murder live (clearly a nod to Peeping Tom (1960)); the other, which was a nice, genuinely unsettling touch, has Myers walk through a doorway, knife in hand, only to be followed a moment later by another “Myers” mimicking his moves (with an unsettling cutaway to the image of them both on one of the CCTV cameras positioned in the house). The killing shape is doubled and for a moment you almost expect a multiplicity of Myers clones to emerge. This brief sequence stood out as wonderfully surreal and truly intriguing in a way that the remaining film didn’t live up to. The repeated Myers figure was explained away in the next scene, but for a few minutes the film was both nicely baffling and surprising.

30 October 2009

Boxed-in: Shane Carruth's Primer (2004)

I couldn’t describe the plot of this film if I tried, but I’ll hazard a guess: a couple of guys, Abe and Aaron (David Sullivan and director Carruth), are working on a machine in their garage that could possibly send objects, and hopefully people, back in time. It’s made out of refrigerator parts and various bits and bobs around the house, and makes a weird humming noise – its look is part metal box and part… I don’t know quite what. The two send themselves back in time, duplicating themselves in the process, and then have to spend hours, days locked away in a pre-arranged hotel room for fear of something terrible happening with either guns, deception or each other's psyches, or indeed a combination of all three. Things inevitably go wrong, but where, when and how remained a mystery to me, right until the credits.

Conceptually, it's akin to Darren Aronofsky's debut, Pi/π (1998), but without its anarchic driving force or sullen atmosphere, mixed with In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute/1997), though without LaBute's acute observations or jagged cruel streak. Both those films, whilst not complete successes, were better examples of insular, low budget filmmaking. And recent inventive Spanish thriller Los cronocrímenes/Timecrimes (Nacho Vigalondo/2007) royally trumps Primer in the twisty-turny-time stakes. Vigalondo's film plays its time travel games with more conviction and, more importantly, with a sense of fun. There is little that lightens the mood in Primer - a humorous touch, or even a few jokes here and there, might have added a bit of charm to the film, and may gone some way in unseizing the impervious grip it has on itself.

The script is so impenetrable that it’s really hard to fathom what it is exactly about. I’m not being defensive in my obtuse reaction and lack of understanding of the film, but Carruth is totally and utterly unconvincingly restricted in his aims to produce a story with access for viewers outside of its, most likely, in-the-know circle of computer-math geeks. (And the fault ultimately and solely lies with Carruth alone - as well as directing, he cast, edited, designed, did the music/sound and produced the film.) Its appeal surely lies with the few - and I mean very few - who can actually say that they grasp what’s going on. In the respect of a film wanting to reach a universal audience (and most films, especially those low-in-budget-desirous-of-box-office, should, yes?), Primer spectacularly fails.

On the good side (limited to some technical attributes), the inventive framing of many scenes is nicely achieved: offices, garages, storage boxes and hotel rooms are all disconcertingly depicted as claustrophobic prisons, both backing up the theme of privacy and containment and formally mimicking the look of the box-like time-travel-gizmo that the characters create. The photography is good too: the low (reportedly $7,000) budget extends to some atypically grainy, often warm images that counteract the gloomy locations and gives them a lived-in feeling of some authenticity.

Ultimately, I just couldn’t get involved with characters who are smug, self-appreciating, middle class WASP boys in business get-ups, who confer endlessly about their secret little endeavours. Kudos, certainly, to Carruth and co. for making a film with very little money – and with a great sense of commitment and determination for their story - but maybe they should have thought that a great number of other people just might not feel included in their sealed-off band of tech-heads. Making it for themselves is fine, but I'm unsure as to whether they should expect many people to care less. It’s primarily very much a film for fully-commited number-crunchers, who consider incomprehensible technical babble to equate meaningful perceptions on existence. Although by no means rote, it's a math lesson I could've easily skipped.

4 September 2009

David Lynch hops to it: Rabbits (2002)

At forty-two minutes this short, web-only offering from David Lynch (found on his own website) is one of his straight up oddities, no question. Made after Mulholland Dr. (2001), alongside another experimental short, Darkened Room, and his crudely animated eight-part web series DumbLand (both 2002), it feels like a roughly thought-out sketch, a test for something bigger (it did ultimately get segmented and cleverly enfolded into his last feature Inland Empire (2006)). Lynch is reported to be constantly prolific between features, whether with short films, painting, photography or sculpture (Rabbits is certainly a stop-gap experiment). His signature themes continually reoccur throughout these side projects, expanding and building on his ongoing fascination with dark deeds and strange happenings. Rabbits fitfully, yet densely uses some of the ideas and imagery that has permeated his films from the start. Faulty lighting? Check. Fire? Check. Shadowed interiors? Check. People in bunny costumes doing the ironing? Ah, that’s a new one.

The film – actually a series of four-or-five-minute episodes strung together – is simplistic in set-up, yet relatively obscure in execution. Each segment opens with the same image: a barely-lit room containing a couch, a telephone on a table, an ironing board, two lamps and a doorway leading to… well, somewhere otherworldly for sure (although Inland Empire did eventually provide the answer). The film features only three characters: Suzie, Jane and Jack (Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring and Scott Coffey respectively – although not that we can tell, as the rabbit suits obscure their identities throughout).

Characters enter the room, approach each other and make blank, stilted comments to rapturous applause from an unseen audience. It has a sketch show/sitcom set-up, although there is no actual obvious comedy; the lines aren’t funny in the way that sitcom one-liners tend to be. I doubt we’re meant to get the humour, if it is indeed there to actually get, as it’s not really outwardly funny in any normal sense. It’s deliberately baffling - more of an innate manner for these rabbit people to communicate with each other and a way for the viewer to attempt to grasp some kind of narrative. It feels like dialogue from a performance art piece (Lynch’s 1990 filmed theatre piece Industrial Symphony #1 comes to mind) or a bad poetry reading. If it’s empty of meaning, then it feels deliberate, presented merely for us to connect the dots and take away its wispy gist perhaps? I’m sure he’s aware of how impenetrably barmy it all comes across, anyway.

Still life With Rabbits (and ironing)

It adds up to very little in the way of coherence, but this doesn’t really matter initially. The last thing I’d want from Lynch when he’s wearing his playful hat – especially in a work this absurdly throwaway – is a narrative that fulfills logic or makes any kind of defined sense; with Lynch it’s thankfully always mood over meaning. He’s merely presenting a set-up, a tableau vivant, and letting his ideas seep out in whichever way he likes; using mise-en-scène to create an arena in which he can seemingly empty out the contents of his brain at the given moment of a take.

The one set-up is consistent throughout: the room is lit the same way and the camera is in an identical position each time the image fades in. Long periods where very little happens are frequent; it’s focus is the pause, pregnant with dread, waiting another monotone line reading as if delivered straight out of a daytime soap opera. This feels intentional and adds a further peculiarity to the already over-peculiar mood. All the time there are constant noises or random spurts of sound that have an instantly typical Lynch feel of otherworldly aural fear: it could be the distant hisses and thuds of some far-away factory; steam pumped out from gnarled machinery; or that fierce wind through the dark trees that Lynch loves so much. We don’t know what is going on outside of the room, and, by extention, outside of the film’s frame. What’s behind the (only) door to the left of the frame? We know, from the re-occurring footsteps echoing ominously that a man in a green suit figures somewhere in the mix, but who, and where, is he? And what’s with the twisted red rodent face that appears in the top corner of the room, gurgling some kind of warped and cryptic dialogue?

For whatever it is, and whatever Lynch might be saying with this, I liked what he was doing on the whole. As ever, he’s eschewing comprehension for the abstraction of imagery, and the hitting of the right phantasmagoric tone. There is a startling, albeit brief, moment when that door on the left slowly opens of its own accord; there is one of his daunting pauses then a cacophony of horrible sounds and lighting changes; then the door quickly slams shut. After thirty-odd minutes of feeling that something ungodly might be lurking there, the effect is terrifying. Here, Lynch is doing what he does best. He may be resting on his laurels slightly, punching just shy of his own weight, but it still works well enough – though nowhere near as effectively as it does in his features. (The effect that the chopped up Rabbits has, as expanded in the monumentally evocative Inland Empire, is sublime, and woven in with great emotional deftness).

Lynch is comfortably back in his red room.

Other than his ability to truly unnerve the viewer, the film is slightly underwhelming. Maybe it’s the episodic nature or the over-familiarity with his ideas, but something feels somewhat lacklustre about it. He is being wilfully obscure. He often is, but in his other, longer films the abstruseness is built up, extended and spread over a series of (not always necessarily sequentially ordered) narrative turns so that it finally comes to a terrible and often open-ended conclusion – where we’re left to ponder all its effects and implications as the credits roll (I’m thinking of Fred’s ride into infinite metamorphosis at the close of Lost Highway (1997) and Betty’s suicide, followed by the Blue Lady’s reverberating sign-off, ‘silencio’, in Mulholland Dr.)

Perhaps due to its limited, piecemeal set-up Rabbits largely just baffles and then simply ends, without much of an enduring impact. An enigmatic trace of atmosphere does remain, to some degree, by the time the rabbits have hopped off the screen. But it’s a minor, quickly evaporating trace compared to how all the nocturnal mysteries and exterior horrors take sublime flight and permeate all-day and all-night-long (and much longer still) in his film work. But in the sequences where mood is sustained with maximum efficiency, Rabbits intrigues simply and instinctively – not letting on about the terrors that lay wait on the other side of that door.

28 August 2009

Genet’s Single Soundless Song: Un Chant d’amour (1950)

I finally caught up with Jean Genet’s only film as director, Un Chant d’amour (1950), within the past year, and it was only as it started that I realised it contained no sound; it was very much a silent film. For some reason I always assumed - in noting the literal translation of the title, A Song of Love - it might feature at least a sprinkling of musical accompaniment, at least. I don't know if my ignorance in not knowing much about the film had anything to do with it, but as soon as the film started the impact of Genet's soundless criminal world was quite a shock: the first prison guard had no footsteps; the swinging flowers outside the cell window made no whooshing sound...

The film is full of splendid, close-fitting imagery – some of it stark; some of it consolatory – but the absence of sound is the most interesting thing about the film. After a while – through the visual-aural associations I missed via the actions carried out on screen – I found myself subconsciously adding sounds to match whatever was happening: I took on the role of the foley artist. The bizarre, solo, jerky dance one inmate performs (either for the prying warden? us? or simply himself?) was rhymeless. Just as the prisoner may have conjured up an internal song, I did the same. I was making the scene as moving, painful, transcendent or even as humourous as I wanted to. I found that the lack of either diegetic or non-diegetic sound often desexualised the action (chiefly the flirtations and foreplay between the prisoners). But, adversely, that lack also makes some moments more intimate, more sensual. A climbing visual fascination occurs, not only for the inmates on screen (visibility for them being hindered by cell walls), but also for the viewer (audibility for us being hindered by its very deficiency). On screen and off, we retreat to recalled images and sounds, respectively, as tools for arousal and/or identification.

The absence of sound during the frequent scenes of sex in the film eradicates one significant and sometimes embarrassing factor (for any person): all that panting and groaning and, er, general verbal appreciation, shall we say. It could be that these prisoners perhaps can’t or won’t make any sound during sexual acts (through fear of being discovered, general self-consciousness, or the desire to keep things ‘unspoken’). This idea is raised in the film’s absence of aural accompaniment. Without it, Genet’s moments of sexual intimacy come across as distanced and almost clinical, tidied up somehow, though never dulled or unpassionate. We inscribe onto the screen how we might feel; it presents us with the act and asks us what we do, how we’d act and what we sound like in similar situations. (The essence of the act of sex, gay or straight, being of course both relative and universal.)

It’s clear that films like Todd Haynes' Poison (1991), Sean Mathias' Bent (1997) and, to some extent, Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche/Bad Night (1985) - as well as (although in a different vein) various Andy Warhol film experiments such as Blow Job (1963) – drew largely on the tonal sensibilities of Un Chant d'amour (particularly in the case of Haynes' film: the 'Homo' section directly references the film), but none captured its exact tone, whether outrightly intended or not. The Love Behind Bars theme may have been examined through others' filmmaking, but Genet’s crucial touch was to deliberately make it affecting through what he didn’t include: the nonexistent sound makes us focus on what’s not there; as a result the focus falls on the images more intently.

The film has often been labelled as visually poetic and dreamlike, and although some sequences have a particularly insular kind of surrealness about them, the general ocular cheerlessness of it doesn’t really inspire - or indeed require - too much overt romantic reference: the details in the very everyday-ness of its most intimate moments are beautifully conveyed with a lucid frankness and, in my view, there isn't call for overstatement here. This is not to devalue what Genet and his co-cinematographer Jacques Natteau acheived at all. The images are certainly distinctive: each scene is framed with immaculate attention to screen space, and the frequency of close-ups instil further intimacy within this world of confinement. But the real potency of the film, what lingers afterwards as a result of watching it in silence, occurs through what each individual viewer adds onto it – through whatever tune, noise, hum or whisper they think fits. We personalise it that way; the best stuff arises simply through the viewing. Did Genet require us to be unwitting interactive participants, by deliberately omitting a soundtrack? I don’t know. But the resulting effect makes his only directing effort a thoroughly reciprocal experience: the viewer, him- or herself, is the perfect complement to the visuals.

Maybe Genet had said and sung too much elsewhere, through his novels (tellingly, books obviously don't have soundtracks), or in his own confinement, to need to say anything with either dialogue or song here. Or maybe he just prefers his films pre-talkie. Who’s to say what Genet’s ultimate thematic or aesthetic intentions for the film were. But this isn’t essential to grasp its seductive qualities. What’s presented on screen can be absorbed intuitively. I took it in the manner I did at the time, and others do likewise. But the lack of voices and noises, the sounds of desire or submission, replaced simply with silence, is what’s so spellbinding about Un Chant d’amour. I could transpose anything I liked onto this mini-fable of grubby love. Needless to say, however good Simon Fisher Turner's or Gavin Bryar's scores for reduxed versions of it are, it's best left without one.

24 August 2009

Looking back to 2000: Films and performances

Female Performances:

01. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Donna De Angelo in Limbo
02. Maggie Cheung as Su Li-zhen/Mrs. Chan in In the Mood for Love
03. Kerry Washington as Lanisha Brown in Our Song
04. Melora Walters as Claudia Wilson Gator in Magnolia
05. Julianne Moore as Sarah Miles in The End of the Affair
06. Carrie-Anne Moss as Natalie in Memento
07. Catherine Keener as Maxine Lund in Being John Malkovich
08. Mira Sorvino as Dionna in Summer of Sam
09. Cate Blanchett as Meredith Logue in The Talented Mr. Ripley
10. Melanie Griffith as Honey Whitlock in Cecil B. DeMented

Also good, in no order: Chloë Sevigny Boys Don’t Cry / Tracey Ullman Small Time Crooks / Annette Bening American Beauty / Björk Dancer in the Dark / Sigourney Weaver Galaxy Quest

Male Performances:

01. Eric Bana as Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read in Chopper
02. Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
03. Billy Crudup as FH in Jesus' Son
04. Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
05. John C. Reilly as Officer Jim Kurring in Magnolia
06. Michael Douglas as Prof. Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys
07. Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Chow Mo-wan in In the Mood for Love
08. Denis Lavant as Galoup in Beau travail
09. Albert Finney as Ed Masry in Erin Brockovich
10. John Leguizamo as Vinny in Summer of Sam

Also good, in no order: Mike White Chuck & Buck / Jack Black High Fidelity / David Strathairn Limbo / Ewen Bremner Julien Donkey-Boy / Jim Carrey Man on the Moon

Top Ten Films:

10. Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese/USA)
09. Summer of Sam (Spike Lee/USA)
08. In the Mood for Love/Fa yeung nin wa (Wong Kar-wai/Hong Kong, France)
07. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch/France, Germany, USA, Japan)
06. Blackboards/Takhté siah (Samira Makhmalbaf/Iran, Italy, Japan)
05. Jesus' Son (Alison Maclean/Canada, USA)
04. Beau travail (Claire Denis/France)
03. American Psycho (Mary Harron/USA)
02. Limbo (John Sayles/USA)
01. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson/USA)

Also good, in no order: One Day in September (Kevin Macdonald) / Our Song (Jim McKay) / High Fidelity (Stephen Frears) / The End of the Affair (Neil Jordan) / Chuck & Buck (Miguel Arteta) / Wisconsin Death Trip (James Marsh) / Small Time Crooks (Woody Allen) / Ringu/The Ring (Hideo Nakata) / Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter/Ash Brannon/Lee Unkrich) / Chopper (Andrew Dominik)

22 August 2009

Looking back to 2001: Films and performances

The top ten films and performances of 2001.

Female Performances:

01. Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher
02. Dina Korzun as Tanya in Last Resort
03. Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream
04. Tilda Swinton as Margaret Hall in The Deep End
05. Charlotte Rampling as Marie Drillon in Under the Sand
06. Frances O'Connor as Monica Swinton in A.I. Artificial Intelligence
07. Ike Ogut as Naghadar in Kandahar
08. Brooke Smith as Dawn in Series 7: The Contenders
09. Jennifer Coolidge as Sherri Ann Cabot in Best in Show
10. Pilar Padilla as Maya in Bread and Roses

Also good, in no order: Laura Linney You Can Count on Me / Jennifer Jason Leigh The King Is Alive / Frances McDormand The Man Who Wasn’t There / Andrea Martin Hedwig and the Angry Inch / Juliette Binoche Code Unknown

Male Performances:

01. John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
02. Jack Nicholson as Jerry Black in The Pledge
03. Mark Ruffalo as Terry Prescott in You Can Count on Me
04. Paddy Considine as Alfie in Last Resort
05. Ryan Gosling as Danny Balint in The Believer
06. Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls
07. Emilio Echevarría as El Chivo in Amores perros
08. Sami Bouajila as Félix in Drôle de Félix
09. Peter Mullen as Gordon Fleming in Session 9
10. Adrien Brody as Sam Shapiro in Bread and Roses

Also good, in no order: Tom Hanks Cast Away / Saïd Taghmaoui Nationale 7 / Takeshi Kitano Gohatto / Benoît Magimel The Piano Teacher / Mark Webber Storytelling

Top Ten Films:

10. Damnation/Kárhozat (Béla Tarr/Hungary)
09. Under the Sand/Sous le sable (François Ozon/France)
08. You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan/USA)
07. Session 9 (Brad Anderson/USA)
06. The Piano Teacher/La pianiste (Michael Haneke/Germany, Poland, France, Austria)
05. Last Resort (Pawel Pawlikowski/UK)
04. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg/USA)
03. The Pledge (Sean Penn/USA)
02. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell/USA)
01. Dark Days (Marc Singer/USA)

Also good, in no order: Bread and Roses (Ken Loach) / George Washington (David Gordon Green) / A One and a Two.../Yi yi (Edward Yang) / Code Unknown/Code inconnu (Michael Haneke) / Amores perros/Love's a Bitch (Alejandro González Iñárritu) / Drôle de Félix/The Adventures of Felix (Olivier Ducastel/Jacques Martineau) / Kandahar/Safar e Ghandehar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf) / Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer) / The Anniversary Party (Alan Cumming/Jennifer Jason Leigh) / The Deep End (Scott McGehee/David Siegel)

21 August 2009

Looking back to 2002: Films and performances

Female Performances:

01. Naomi Watts as Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Dr.
02. Stockard Channing as Julie Styron in The Business of Strangers
03. Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson in Gosford Park
04. Shiang-chyi Chen as Shiang-chyi in What Time Is It There?
05. Uma Thurman as Amy Randall in Tape
06. Mania Akbari as the Driver in Ten
07. Cate Blanchett as Philippa in Heaven
08. Samantha Morton as Morvern Callar in Morvern Callar
09. Emily Watson as Elsie in Gosford Park
10. Béatrice Dalle as Coré in Trouble Every Day

Also good, in no order: Marcia Gay Harden Pollock / Fanny Ardant 8 Women / Barbara Hershey Lantana / Maribel Verdú Y tu mamá también / Anjelica Huston The Royal Tenenbaums

Male Performances:

01. Martin Compston as Liam in Sweet Sixteen
02. Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums
03. Tom Cruise as Chief John Anderton in Minority Report
04. Timothy Spall as Phil in All or Nothing
05. Samuel L. Jackson as Doyle Gipson in Changing Lanes
06. Bill Nighy as Dan in The Lawless Heart
07. Paul Dano as Howie Blitzer in L.I.E.
08. Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson in 24-Hour Party People
09. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Okwe in Dirty Pretty Things
10. Robin Williams as Seymour Parrish in One-Hour Photo

Also good, in no order: Jake Gyllenhaal Donnie Darko / Stefano Cassetti Roberto Succo / Moritz Bleibtreu Das Experiment / Heath Ledger Monster’s Ball / Owen Wilson The Royal Tenenbaums

Top Ten Films:

10. My Little Eye (Marc Evans/UK, USA, France, Canada)
09. The Lawless Heart (Tom Hunsinger/Neil Hunter/UK, France)
08. Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis/France, Germany, Japan)
07. 28 Days Later... (Danny Boyle/UK)
06. Gosford Park (Robert Altman/UK, USA, Italy)
05. Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach/UK)
04. What Time Is It There?/ Ni na bian ji dian (Tsai Ming-Liang/Taiwan, France)
03. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami/Iran, France, USA)
02. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg/USA)
01. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch/USA)

Also good, in no order: Abouna (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun) / The Business of Strangers (Patrick Stettner) / Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly) / Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsey) / The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson) / L.I.E. (Michael Cuesta) / All or Nothing (Mike Leigh) / Changing Lanes (Roger Michell) / Tape (Richard Linklater) / Talk to Her/Hable con ella (Pedro Almodóvar)

Looking back to 2003: Films and performances

Female Performances:

01. Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker in Far from Heaven
02. Miranda Richardson as Yvonne/Mrs. Cleg in Spider
03. Anne Reid as May in The Mother
04. Jennifer Aniston as Justine Last in The Good Girl
05. Emma Thompson as Karen in Love Actually
06. Charlotte Rampling as Sarah Morton in Swimming Pool
07. Tilda Swinton as Ella Gault in Young Adam
08. Meg Ryan as Frannie in In the Cut
09. Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee Holloway in Secretary
10. Anne Parillaud as Jeanne in Sex Is Comedy

Also good, in no order: Oksana Akinshina Lilja 4-ever / Katrin Sass Good Bye, Lenin! / Sarah Polley My Life without Me / Patricia Clarkson All the Real Girls / Uma Thurman Kill Bill Vol.1

Male Performances:

01. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Wilson Joel in Love Liza
02. Olivier Gourmet as Olivier in The Son
03. John Cusack as Max Rothman in Max
04. Lars Rudolph as János Valuska in Werckmeister Harmonies
05. Jack Kehler as Denny in Love Liza
06. Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt
07. Victor Rasuk as Victor Vargas in Raising Victor Vargas
08. Ralph Fiennes as Spider in Spider
09. Willem Dafoe as Earl Copen in Animal Factory
10. Pierre-Louis Bonnetblanc as David in Le Souffle

Also good, in no order: Ewan McGregor Young Adam / Nicolas Cage Adaptation. / Daniel Brühl Good Bye, Lenin! / Dennis Haysbert Far from Heaven / Max von Sydow Intacto

Top Ten Films:

01. Gerry (Gus Van Sant/USA)
02. Werckmeister Harmonies/Werckmeister harmóniák (Béla Tarr/Hungary)
03. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes/USA, France)
04. Love Liza (Todd Louiso/USA)
05. Spider (David Cronenberg/Canada, UK)
06. Russian Ark/Russkiy kovcheg (Aleksandr Sokurov/Russia)
07. The Good Girl (Miguel Arteta/USA)
08. The Hours (Stephen Daldry/USA, UK)
09. Le Souffle (Damien Odoul/France)
10. The Mother (Roger Michell/UK)

Also good, in no order: City of God/Cidade de Deus (Fernando Meirelles/Kátia Lund) / The Son/Le fils (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne) / Calais: The Last Border (Marc Isaacs) / Max (Menno Meyjes) / Adaptation. (Spike Jonze) / Waiting for Happiness/Heremakono (Abderrahmane Sissako) / Belleville Rendez-Vous/Les triplettes de Belleville (Sylvain Chomet) / Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald) / Time of the Wolf/Le temps du loup (Michael Haneke) / About Schmidt (Alexander Payne) / All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green) / Warming by the Devil’s Fire (Charles Burnett) / Identity (James Mangold) / Spirited Away/Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Hayao Miyazaki) / Intacto/Intact (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) / Cowards Bend the Knee or The Blue Hands (Guy Maddin) / Good Bye, Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker) / Young Adam (David Mackenzie) / Japón/Japan (Carlos Reygadas) / Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett)

20 August 2009

Looking back to 2004: Films and performances

A few quick posts to Recap on Top Tens from 2000 to 2004 (2005 to 2008 have been completed in earlier posts), to finish of the top tens from '00 to the present. 2009 top tens to come in January 2010.

Female Performances:

01. Toni Collette as Sandy Edwards in Japanese Story
02. Natalie Press as Mona in My Summer of Love
03. Nicole Kidman as Anna in Birth
04. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster
05. Naomi Watts as Cristina Peck in 21 Grams
06. Daryl Hannah as Elle Driver in Kill Bill Vol. 2
07. Marina de Van as Esther in Dans ma peau
08. Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner in American Splendor
09. Laia Marull as Pilar in Take My Eyes
10. Isabella Rosselini as Lady Helen Port-Huntley in The Saddest Music in the World

Also good, in no order: Ingrid de Souza Princesa / Radha Mitchell Finding Neverland / Lisa Kudrow Wonderland / Patricia Clarkson Pieces of April / Cécile De France Switchblade Romance

Male Performances:

01. Peter Sarsgaard as Charles 'Chuck' Lane in Shattered Glass
02. Paddy Considine as Richard in Dead Man’s Shoes
03. Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor
04. Bobby Cannavale as Joe Oramas in The Station Agent
05. Emin Toprak as Yusuf in Uzak
06. Simon Pegg as Shaun in Shaun of the Dead
07. Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
08. Gael Garcia Bernal as Ángel/Juan/Zahara in Bad Education
09. Min Sik-Choi as Dae-su Oh in Oldboy
10. Mark Wahlberg as Tommy Corn in I ♥ Huckabees

Also good, in no order: John Hurt Dogville / Ossie Davis Bubba Ho-Tep / Phillip Garel The Dreamers / Jim Carrey Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind / Ivan Dobronravov The Return

Top Ten films:

01. Japanese Story (Sue Brooks/Australia)
02. Goodbye, Dragon Inn/Bu san (Tsai Ming-Liang/Taiwan)
03. Elephant (Gus Van Sant/USA)
04. My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikowski/UK)
05. Birth (Jonathan Glazer/USA)
06. The World/Shijie (Zhang Ke Jia/China)
07. Shattered Glass (Billy Ray/USA)
08. The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy/USA)
09. Dans ma peau/In My Skin (Marina de Van/France)
10. Gozu (Takashi Miike/Japan)

Also good, in no order: Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright) / Take My Eyes/Te doy mis ojos (Icíar Bollaín) / My Architect (Nathaniel Kahn) / American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman/Robert Pulcini) / The Incredibles (Brad Bird) / Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay) / The Return/Vozvrashcheniye (Andrei Zvyagintsev) / Dead Man's Shoes (Shane Meadows) / Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder) / Uzak/Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) / Oldboy (Chan-wook Park) / Dogville (Lars von Trier) / The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin) / Bad Education/La mala educación (Pedro Almodóvar) / Dead Birds (Alex Turner) / Last Life in the Universe/Ruang rak noi nid mahasan (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang) / 21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu) / Red Lights/Feux rouges (Cédric Kahn) / Little Men/Malenkie lyudi (Nariman Turebayev) / Haute tension/Switchblade Romance (Alexandre Aja)

16 March 2009

Favourite Performances: Diane Ladd as Marietta Fortune in Wild at Heart (1990)

This is the first in an ongoing series of pieces on what I consider the best performances I've seen. I'll pick out the performances, both male and female, that have made the biggest impact on me. Whether it's through what I see as sheer incontestably great acting, or simply a role that has struck a particular chord - a character that's been funny, moving or just deeply memorable. These aren't in any qualitative order, they're simply random as and when I think of them. First up is:

Diane Ladd in Wild at Heart.

How to look good mental: Diane Ladd applies the slap all wrong in Wild at Heart

If Baby Jane Hudson had another, younger sister it’s a fair bet she would have turned out like Marietta Fortune. Diane Ladd’s performance in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) channels Bette Davis’ furious camp rage, heightens it, pumps up the volume a notch further and then layers it with a hefty dollop of extra-matriarchal evil: she’s vile at heart, and definitely weird on top. (The scene where she smears her entire face in red lipstick whilst holding a conversation on the phone puts paid to any notion of concrete stability – she’s also wearing pixie boots whilst vomiting in a toilet at the time.)

An early scene sees her forbid her daughter Lula (played by real-life daughter Laura Dern) from seeing her lover, Nicolas Cage’s Sailor Ripley, after warding him off on the phone (Marietta is often seen on the phone in the film: cut off, at a remove, and dishing out unreasonable demands) “You know who that was,” she warns Lula, “and you know that you aren’t, and I mean ARE NOT, gonnah see him ev-ah. End of stor-eh.” She barks the lines in her southern twang, holding up her hand, fingers stretched out in a gesture of catty defiance.

Murder, she hoped: J.E. Freeman (as Marcelles Santos) and Diane Ladd (as Marietta Fortune)

With her over-styled hair a cross between an Afghan hound and a failed Farrah Fawcet flick, the wardrobe of a Golden Girl and sharp pink fingernails clasping the stem of a martini glass, she then turns to the camera and, in extreme close-up, pierces the fourth wall with accusing eyes. She proceeds to scoff the drink as if she were imperviously downing poison. She’s challenging the audience as much as she challenges Lula. Marietta is the Mommie Dearest of the South, and no mistake – though she could have Joan Crawford for breakfast. Either that or simply have her rubbed out.

That we’re meant to see her as evil is never in question, but it’s a delightfully blazing and blackly comic kind of evil. A few fantasy moments even have her riding a broomstick and cackling high into the night sky as the Wicked Witch of the West – one of many allusions to The Wizard of Oz (1939) that Lynch peppers the film with. What I particularly love about Ladd in Wild at Heart is that she’s clearly having a full-blown private riot all her own in the role (and the film is already riot enough). She obviously relished the opportunity to go way off the rails. Although at the same time she appears to play it entirely straight. Ladd infuses Marietta with a shopworn realness beneath the loopy dark-hearted bitch; she manages to make all that wickedness both sadly believable and outrageously parodic at the same time.

Prank caller: Diane Ladd tries out her ill-advised telephone face

If proof were needed of her sheer wonderfulness watch one of her earliest scenes, where she gratuitously (and drunkenly) attempts to seduce Sailor in a men’s toilet. “Oh Sailor, Sailor boy-eee! How would you like to fuck Lula's momma? …'Cause Lula's momm-ah would like to fuck you.” Her jovial audacity and determination turn to serious threat after he rebuffs her. Dejected and enraged, she warns him off Lula. “You’re gonna have to stop me,” Cage spits at her, and then walks away. Forcing the cubicle door open, Marietta disquietly snarls back: “That can be arranged.” And we know it can (Marietta is in league with some particularly nasty hitmen.) She sobers up quickly once she knows what’s at stake, what she’ll have to do to get her own way. Ladd brilliantly shows that an exultant, but insidious evil is always bubbling away just below the surface, right beneath the layers of garish electric-blue eye shadow and red, blood red, lipstick.

In looking back at Ladd’s performance – and I’ve done so regularly since I first saw the film in August 1990 – it’s actually a shock that she was nominated for both the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe and Oscar in 1991. Very little about the film, especially Ladd’s turn, feels award-friendly. Of course she was never going to get the Oscar (they went with Whoopi Goldberg’s comic turn in Ghost (1990)), but a nomination went some way in proving what an indelible mark she had made. And true to the sly, opportunistic spirit of Marietta, Ladd actually lobbied hard for the nomination herself. Her cheeky, ballsy self-belief mixed with the intrepid, out-there performance itself made people sit up and pay attention (when you put in a part as searing and as nefarious as Marietta you’d insist people to take notice – roles like her don’t come around too often).

Disconnected: Ladd threatens to rip a call centre employee a new hole for wasting her time

Ladd has been exemplary in many varied roles over the years – the waitress in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, her Ida Sessions in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (both 1974), Black Widow (1987), National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), A Kiss Before Dying (1991), as Dern’s mother again in Rambling Rose (1991) and another role for Lynch, as scathing talk-show host Marilyn Levens, in Inland Empire (2006). But for me, Marietta Fortune is the absolute standout of her career so far. It was the part that made me aware of how truly good Ladd can be, given the perfect script. But it was the subtlety she added to it that made it great acting: the tiny, crazy nuances, the ingratiating put-on baby voice when faking sincerity, the flirtatious but subtly vehement attitude in all things conspiratorial (“no tongue – my lipstick!”), and all her glamorously vain posing. It’s all the triumphant risks of a daring actress that made Marietta that extra bit special. Diane Ladd in Wild at Heart is, absolutely, rockin’ good news.

© Craig Bloomfield 2009

9 March 2009

Vote Asia!

Asia Argento: the purrfect candidate

These Christopher Nolan Batman flicks are all right aren't they. Frenetically thrilling at times and broodingly morose at others. Gleefully daft in places and excessively exacting in others. They look appropriately moody with all that typically sombre cinematography and very 'high concept' with all those nifty little hooks and gadgets and things that make the hardcore Batfans go weak at the knees. Then there’s all that freakishly scary gurning that goes on (and that's just Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine). They’ve managed to rake in plenty of cash at the box office and from DVD and BluRay rentals and sales, and have been talked about, mulled over and pulled apart to within an inch of their closing credits. On top of the healthy returns The Dark Knight (2007) gained two Oscar wins - Sound Editing and, of course, Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger’s Joker - and six other nominations.

With the phenomenal success of both Batman Begins (2005) and, particularly, Knight there’s been plenty of brow-furrowing speculation as to possible future instalments and what could happen in them, never more so than with Inception about to do the rounds. It's all very well and good, but what I want to know is whether any bat-adventures will be truly surprising? Are they planning anything that mucks with the template? rather good fun as they already are, I’d like to see a few changes made. And one significant addition.

People are likely demanding the Penguin's return (to be played by some old, rotund Oscar winner probably) and certainly the Riddler's re-emergence (to be played by some young, lanky indie actor probably). People will probably demand [insert multiple other Batman foes] (I'm not widely versed enough in the Bat universe to know the names of any of the others) be ideally played by the latest Hollywood jock/hunk with a bad boy reputation, probably. And now Mickey Rourke is back on the movie map I bet film execs are kicking themselves that they didn’t snag him for Harvey Two-Face first. But what about Catwoman?

Asia in Mother of Tears: cry her name

So far we've had a wooden Liam Neeson as some kind of father figure who's, like, really strange and mystical or something, and an errant - and possibly sexually impotent - guy with an ASBO and a potato sack on his head in the first one; and in Knight we've had Ledger's tightly-wound, wayward-son-gone-off-the-rails Joker and a man with two faces - one all dashing 'n' that like an '80s catalogue model, the other all crispy. Add to this the long line of gruff police chiefs, numerous villainous henchmen and one fusty old butler and it reads like a pretty gloomy roll call. It’s all a bit too darn manly. Batman himself does indeed live in a pretty gloomy environment, but what about lifting the mood a little, adding something a little more felid and slinkier into the mix? As the Joker says, Why so Serious? Indeed, Why so masculine?

Don't you think these flicks lacked a decent female presence? A gal who could not only kick ass alongside, or better than, Christian Bale dressed as a nocturnal flying mammal, but also a gal who could add a touch of pouty, sultry vigour?

I mean, Katie Holmes went down critically and commercially like a sack of shit, and could barely mouth lines into a telephone let alone interact with her co-stars, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as talented as she is, only really wore a few dresses, danced about a bit and then "left the film" two-thirds in. That just left Gary Oldman's wife - who, actually quite hilariously, in the newer film only ever opened doors to people in floods of tears (I wondered whether if someone had sent a nice singing telegram to her door she'd have done the same?) - and his police partner, who didn't get the chance to do very much apart from dob someone in to the Gotham rozzers and receive a smack in the face for her efforts. Tut-tut boys. Those Nolan bros. do write some stern and virile stuff for sure. But Batman needs mothering. He needs to be pussy-whipped. He needs to be slapped around a bit.

Batman needs fucking with.

Asia can even dispatch zombies lying down on the job in Land of the Dead

So, if you are saying, ‘Oh, why yes, I see what you’re saying in this pointlessly trivial post. The probable new Batflick does indeed need a superior lady character to perk things up a bit,’ then this is the right place for you.

Yup, this is my most likely futile attempt to create an (un)official platform for PROPOSING ASIA ARGENTO AS THE NEW & FUTURE CATWOMAN IN THE NEXT BATMAN FILM (providing there’s going to be one, and if they decide to bother with Catwoman at all).

People with far more business savvy, financial sense and/or fan boy inclinations than I will cry, 'I want Emily Blunt or Kate Winslet! Anne Hathaway! Megan Fox!... The Olsen twins!' (Who could alternate, Buñuel-style, in the role: one could relieve the other if they get too confused.) I’ve even heard a rumour that Cher’s name is being bandied about as the next Catwoman - to be played as a wise old cat-burglar type. Well, if they could turn back time, if they could find a way, I’m all for it.

But will any of these people really stand out? Will they bring something different to the table other than what's already been done before with the role? How interesting would the above lot be? Perhaps not very. They're all, by-and-large, really rather boring and obvious candidates, Cher aside. Michelle Pfeiffer was very good in Batman Returns (1992), but that was seventeen years ago; Halle Berry valiantly took a stab at keeping aloft the 2005 Catwoman film but the film took a nosedive - it had one life, not nine; and Lee Meriwether, Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar, great as they were, have all had their day and have long since hung up their catsuits.

But I say vote for someone fresh, someone unexpected. Vote Asia Argento. She's frankly better than any number of carefully considered "top-draw" A-listers whom lazy casting agents might want to conjure up. Frankly, she’s a better choice than all of them.

Mean girl: Asia in Une vieille maîtresse

Watch Land of the Dead (2005) to see her dispatch villainous hoards of henchmen (well, er, zombies) with a brutal kick, thrust and punch - SOCK! POW! KER-SMASH! Watch Une vieille maîtresse (2007) and see her casually dismiss mere mortals with nothing more than a flick of the wrist, whilst dressed in some ridiculously elaborate yet fantastic costumes. Watch her dad Dario's 2007 horror flick Mother of Tears and see her capably interact with some dodgy special effects. Be enthralled as she acts everyone out of an artfully reconstructed Versailles, and in a quarter of everyone else's screen time, in Marie Antoinette (2006). Watch xXx (2002), if you want to, where she wasn’t given anything to do and was still the best thing on show. Or watch her s-l-o-w-l-y get out of bed and walk around for a bit in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005). And certainly watch Trauma (1993), Boarding Gate (2007), Demons 2 (1986), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), The Church (1989), and the two flicks she directed herself: Scarlet Diva (2000) and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004) for the full Asia effect.

She's got the voice, the muscles, the stamina, the femininity and, above all, the perfect look to add something more lithely carnivorous to this testosterone-heavy franchise. She’s an indelibly talented, voracious and often volatile actress, someone who will give any film an extra shot of daring, wayward edginess. Aren’t these attributes perfect for Catwoman? Don’t you think this is exactly what’s needed in BatWorld?

She'll own Gotham town.

Red light spells danger: The Omen rehashed

Young Old Nick gives Skeletor a much-needed blood transfusion in The Omen

The Antichrist made a poor appearance back in 2006. 06/06/06 – the eye-rolling, conceptually-timed release date for the remake of ‘70s well-regarded devil-child flick The Omen – proved to be a redundant event, along with it being an equally redundant marketing ploy. I don’t think anyone cared, if they even noticed; those who did notice most likely greeted the concept with, a shrug and another mouthful of popcorn. (Although Mel Gibson should have tried a similar gimmick for his The Passion of the Christ movie back in 2004; releasing it on Easter Sunday accompanied by a limited edition range of chocolate eggs featuring Jesus’ winking face).

This oh-so-clever release date was the first dodgy step for director John Moore's remake. It’s a rather idiotic and lazy rehash, all told. Clammy-looking President's godson Liev Schreiber (does the man permanently sweat?) and wife Julia Stiles (whose face is so pale, luminous and circular that it seems to appear more lunar the more close-ups it gets) have a kid and he’s the devil: Damien, of course. If you’ve seen the much-better 1976 original then the story will be familiar enough. This update replicates the plot almost verbatim yet manages to fudge it mightily.

The first half of the film is rushed. This was an issue in the original, but events there were steeped in a dreadful, all-encompassing atmosphere that strained at the film’s edges to provide the audience with a close-to-terrifying tour through one family’s death trip courtesy, literally, of a brat from hell. The only signs of attempted atmosphere come in the form of a glaringly obvious colour-coded style of mise-en-scène that shows up director Moore’s misunderstanding of this devilish horror fable. The colour? Red, of course. From the promotional posters right through to the scarlet-tinted photographic palette, everything is red red red. It had to feature somewhat, certainly. But the experience of watching this Omen film was like a forced lesson in Film Colour Psychology 101.

Mia Farrow feeds red devil Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) a CAKE FROM HELL in The Omen

It’s one thing to attempt evocation by showing Damien disconcertingly wrapped up in blood-coloured bed clothes, or smartly dressed in a bright red outdoor jacket, as the smarmy conceptual trailer showed, but having such totally random items as – and these are random – tomatoes, toy British telephone boxes, every single plant and flower and the dresses worn by Moonface, amongst many other things, all in red is pushing the idea a bit too far. Don’t Look Now (1973) achieved this effect with just the one red coat 30-plus years ago.

So Damien is evil incarnate. We know this. But why shove signifier upon signifier onto the screen to keep reminding us. Oh, it’s a portent of bloodshed to come… or the very colour of death itself. Yes, got it. Instead of constantly upping the film stock level so that it creates the effect of watching the film through bloodshot eyes, why didn’t the filmmakers put some of that enthusiastic creation into lessening the dull thud that the script makes on the ears; each line is delivered with mounting vacancy that it makes somnambulists of the entire cast. (Although, on the plus side Mia Farrow, as mini-Beelzebub’s sinister babysitter, brings faint memories of Rosemary’s Baby (1969) with her, and the Thorn family maid’s fatal bungee jump off the mansion roof is still effective).

There are a few moments when Moore’s direction works. Some still shots are quite nicely studied, and create a sense of fearful unease: plastic-wrapped paintings and sculptures in a hollow mansion seem almost otherworldly; a stark bathroom with something sinister spied in the corner of a mirror; the optical, illusory, Escher-like Parkay flooring patterns in the Thorn’s mansion, and so on. But everything else here, including most of the actual action, is simply boring. And who thought a brush with the Prince of Darkness would induce yawns? The movie poster strap-line says His Day Will Come. If this remake is to be believed then we’re in for a much longer wait.

© Craig Bloomfield 2009

8 March 2009

Piss and moan, piss and moan: giving Zach Braff the kiss-off

Zach Braff in The Last Kiss, giving us one of his life-affirming stares into the distance

One of fashion retail chain Gap’s mission statements has always centred on the idea of lifelong shopping: clothing people from birth to death. The characters in the Zach Braff film The Last Kiss (Tony Goldwyn/2006) seem to represent the Gap demographic perfectly: the film shows us a host of affluent clotheshorses variable in age, from babies to would-be grandparents. They all pout, gaze and flap endlessly in a listless manner that the film’s makers would like to think constitutes emotional interest and connection (or disconnection if the threadbare narrative is to be believed), but actually all this results in is 103 minutes of verbose trash of the most insular and hermetic kind. So, the feeling you get after having shopped at Gap during a Christmas sale, then.

The Last Kiss is one hair away from being a glossy coffee table catalogue full of middle-class whiners too self-indulgent to see beyond the ends of their own privileged noses. Braff and his three drifting chums (played by Eric Christian Olsen, Casey Affleck, Michael Weston) are on the cusp of 30 and find that “there are no surprises anymore.” So Braff hooks up with a younger version (Rachel Bilson) of his newly pregnant girlfriend Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) to try and discover himself. Or some such rubbish. What the film would like us to believe is that this band of buddies are so disaffected with their lives that they have invariably reached some kind of crisis. But in fact they are a sad-sack bunch of damp, spoilt cry-babies, too wet from all the man-tears they’re wallowing in and all the Coldplay albums they’re listening to to think about anyone else in their lives. Although I understand that this description clearly wouldn't have made a particularly sellable plotline.

Braff giving us another of his life-affirming stares into the distance (with his face glued to a doormat)

In fact, a woeful sense of disaffection rings throughout this whole indulgent excuse for Braff and co's introverted meanderings. Zack the lad's scared of commitment, see. Therefore fucking a duplicate of your girlfriend is the order of the day, ‘cause she’s, like, the same woman, only younger, and comes with a free mix CD (most likely featuring The Shins, Snow Patrol and any other dribbling alt. rock) for those Braff-only life-affirming stares into the distance from a comfy highly-paid architect’s couch, thus enabling him to relive the youthful, heady days of college abandonment. It allows him to find his true path. Bless the guy. All the while Jenna's parents (played by Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson) are going through their own rote, non-specific marital troubles, proving that happiness clearly isn't hereditary. Danner even has a spectacularly embarrassing, and therefore quite hilarious, breakdown scene of her own; one that involves her flapping her hands in front of her face whilst running on a treadmill.

Nobody here is content with the obvious abundance of luxury afforded them, especially Braff's well-off mates. The filmmakers aren't content with that either, so they pile on generic strife in an attempt to wring from us extra sympathy for them: one pal can’t get over his ex (and we are duly nudged to feel for him because the plot demands that his dad, uh, selfishly dies, interrupting his lovelorn brooding); another can’t cope with having had a baby, so leaves his wife to do all the work whilst he stares into the distance from a comfy, highly-paid architect’s couch (where he must surely be dreaming up an excuse for why he can’t cope with simple everyday responsibilities, because god knows the scriptwriter, Crash’s (2005) Paul Haggis, hasn’t provided one); another one of the pals actually seems ok with – Gosh! Shock! – getting on with life in the company of his female fuck buddy… well, that is until she suggests he meet her folks. By then he’s hotfooting it off to Mexico for a boy's own soul-searching jolly with the rest of them. God forbid anyone suggest these dudes do some actual work - they’d surely shit a brick.

© Craig Bloomfield 2009