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

The Transporter: The all-new action man (comes with disposable villains)

Frank, the transporter of the title, breaks one of his own rules roughly a third of the way into the film: never open the package. He finds Lai (Qi Shu), a female hostage who he has to deliver to a crime baron type who has her family held in a shipping container, bound for black market slavery (or something to this effect). The plot doesn’t really go into the messy specifics of the politics of people trading and I never expected it to. It’s an excuse for an onslaught of sleek and swiftly executed action sequences with Jason Statham kicking and punching a lot of people in the process of saving the day. It’s preposterous, over-the-top and a lot of fun. We needed another Bruce Willis now that Bruce Willis is getting a bit too old for running around and slapping bad guys. Step up, Statham.

Through a commitment to its slimmed down narrative and maximum action quotient, The Transporter (Louis Leterrier/Corey Yuen, 2002) indeed transports us back to the kinds of mid-eighties Renegade-Operative-on-a-Mission style flicks that starred the likes of Arnie, Sly or Steven Seagal in their heyday (the soundtrack is full of cheesy ‘80s soulfullness, too, but with a noughties techno-glitchiness added to jazz it up and make the whole thing feel contemporary). But Statham’s no-nonsense quiet guy mumbles less than those near-fossils of action cinema, and is far more sleek and energetic, making this post-millennial update of those ‘80s films zip breathlessly past by confidently providing four or five major set pieces with a forceful efficiency.

Prior to acting Statham was an Olympic Diver on the British National Diving Team (finishing 12th in the World Championships in 1992) and he already has a background in martial arts, enabling him to perform the majority of his own stunts (it works well and he makes it look a breeze – aided by editor Nicolas Trembasiewicz’s swift cutting). Statham’s credentials goes far in showing us just how effortlessly he manages to kick ass: he makes every move, jump and spin count. To me, he seemed like the perfect contemporary action hero, blending no bullshit bravado with a measured stance on dishing out his brand of zero-fuss MovieWorld justice. He may be a bit shaky with the American accent at times, but that’s not really a concern: he doesn’t need to talk people down when a sharp chop to the face will suffice. And I never require plot exposition in films like this (who does?). I’ve always admired director-star combos who prefer swift pacing and a clear focus on the fundamental joys of the genre.

Of the set pieces an oil-covered bus terminal face-off (where goons attempt to get to slippery grips with a grease-smeared Statham), a four-way scrap in a shipping container yard and a thrilling getaway-in-a-lorry-hurtling-down-a-highway stand out – which is the most playful, ridiculous and absurdly entertaining chase I’ve seen since Licence to Kill back in 1989. And curiously enough, more often than not 50% of Statham’s wardrobe happens to go mysteriously missing during some fight scenes, giving them a slightly Fight Club-esque homoerotic tinge (enhanced by his apparent disinterest in the heroine, regardless of a reluctant one-off token sex scene) – and one dock-set scuffle is cheekily topped off with an underwater “kiss” between Statham a recently dispatched bad guy (submerged and desperately needing air, Statham locks lips with a drowned henchman!). It makes you think that the filmmakers were hinting at something that they dared not include overtly in the actual storyline. Hmm.

Although, in many ways, all we need to know is contained in the let’s-get-straight-to-the-point introductory scene. After some typically slick opening titles the camera immediately seeks out Statham as he sits in his BMW, impatiently waiting for the film to get going. It’s as if he’s a blank slate, and has no background: he’s simply a man on a mission, and whatever we might want to project onto him is welcomed by the filmmakers and gladly open to interpretation. He does his job, and he does it well. The same can be said of the film itself. The Transporter went on to spawn two sequels (in 2005 and 2008), and the only thing to be said about them is that they contain more of exactly the same, thank you very much.

© Craig Bloomfield 2009

Desperate Living: A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes/1974)

Street life: Gena Rowlands wanders in A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence is an astounding and incredibly moving film, without a single wasted scene or false moment in it. Cassavetes’ open-ended, improvised approach to filmmaking is, to me, one of the most effective kinds. His films - I’ve found, having seen my first five over the last year or so - have a singular style (he was one of the biggest pioneers of genuinely independent filmmaking in the ‘70s). His approach to telling stories about people off-the-right-track comes from an angle of deep-rooted humanism and regard. In Influence a scene will perhaps last for 20 minutes, and seemingly cover very little narrative ground, but the focus is on establishing small grains of truthfulness that build up to form an overall portrait of people’s lived existence that has a bold, lasting effect.

Gena Rowlands is Mabel Longhetti, a housewife who is (possibly? Probably?) going slowly out of her mind. It’s never firmly identified as any typical idea of insanity, but it’s clear that she doesn’t fit into the conventional mould of day-to-day living. It’s in everyone’s minds that Mabel is ‘losing it’, but the evidence for this is blurred at the edges. Her husband Nick (Peter Falk) may be embarrassed by Mabel’s behaviour – the excessive drinking, shouting, flirting and general histrionic behaviour - and duly has her committed, but the regret and resignation etched on his face speaks volumes and begs questions about the nature of his marital commitment. He loves her completely (something we never doubt), but feels that he can’t live with her the way she is. The dramatic conflict of emotion arising from this situation is honestly heartbreaking.

Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti

It’s interesting to observe how the couple’s children actually have fun in Mabel’s company, whereas fun is strained when they are with Nick – shown in a memorably cringe-inducing, though very affecting scene when he takes them on a trip to the seaside. Each scene, in fact, is drawn out to its natural conclusion, but not a single moment of screen time is squandered. The editing is sharp and conducive to constructive narrative progression. There isn’t anything phoney in the film at all; nothing in the cutting, the acting or the direction feels flabby or dishonest. Some of the best moments are fleeting: Rowlands, shoeless on the street, in an overlong overcoat, cigarette in hand, bag draped over her arm, wonders into a bar eager to connect with someone who hasn’t already put their stamp on her life; she conveys the habitual sting of a lonely mind, in a few effortless gestures, in a matter of minutes.

Better still is the scene of Mabel waiting for kids to return from school (after she has spent some time away from them – in the hospital, have been committed). She nervously darts between road and pavement waiting for the school bus to come around the corner. Her excitement is feverish: she desperately needs to see her kids. Other, perhaps more socially adjusted, mothers also waiting shoot her awkward glances, but she absently thumbs them off whilst blowing raspberries at them. You instantly feel her new-found, undiluted pride. Her attire may be shabby and her behaviour erratic, but the unfaltering need to be the best person she can – for her husband, for her kids, for the longevity of her lifestyle, and, overall, for herself – is never in question. Rowlands is staggering in the film. Her face, in all its crumpled, unabashed gracefulness, acts as the film’s worried mascot. In numerous ways, she’s the original desperate housewife.

© Craig Bloomfield 2009