31 May 2010

At the Cinema: The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans

The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans (Werner Herzog/2009) USA/122 mins. *****

This is Herzog's human aquarium. It's kind of ridiculous, kind of sublime, full of examples of beauty and scum, and always only a few out-of-the-blue incidents away from fully embodying - or indeed transcending - any of those things. He shows post-Katrina New Orleans as a city first steeped in, then drained of, water: all outlying aquatic (reptilian, ambhibious) life is left stranded to mix with its inhabitants; both observe, just like Herzog's tricksy camera, the bad people do - in particular one close-to-rotten egg: drug-addled cop Terence McDonaugh (Nicolas Cage), on the trail of drug dealers who have murdered a family following a bust. He's half-heartedly groping for answers and full-heartedly scoring crack, and not really appearing to gain any joy from either.

Bad Lieutenant's plot idles along making equal amounts of time for dazed and confused interactions with a grab-bag of adrift characters (some stable, who initially appear dubious; some dubious, who were never stable to begin with) and the central aim of rooting out the city's criminal cause and exposing its fetid underside - tragically, an underside already visible. People come, go, flirt with the central narrative and occasionally impact upon it: Val Kilmer as Cage's cop partner, Eva Mendes as Cage's prostitute girlfriend, Brad Dourif as a bookie and - to a lesser extent - Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge, Xzibit, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Shawn Hatosy, Irma P. Hall, Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon (all good) each turn up to add an extra of dimension of calamity or fortuitousness to Cage's journey south.

Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes in Bad Lieutenant

But it's obviously Cage's film to wholly own: he's the film's over-emotional and over-energised epicentre. His performance is all over the place, but despite displaying some of his most outlandish quirks yet, it's never laughable (more laugh-with-able). He's a dervish of both disturbing and entertaining outbursts - whether simply giggling, through drug-induced fogginess, at the name 'G' during an interrogation, threatening information-withholding pensioners with firearms or almost maniacally enthusing to Mendes about a meaningful trinket - a spoon buried near his childhood hideaway (this scene, and several others dotted throughout the film - in particular the very last - contain a rather moving, melancholic tone that shifts the film temporarily out of place and add a touch of genuine, sentiment-driven feeling which I've not too often seen in a Herzog film).

I was enthralled by the way events almost inconsequentially stumble along, not really finding a foothold on a solid narrative path. The plot, like Cage, gets sidetracked and veers off down enjoyably demented avenues, with pitstops to pause for flashes of daft ingenuity - an alligator's POV of roadside carnage, a freshly-dead breakdancing corpse - which gleefully stand out like sore thumbs (and would stand out like twisted and torn up thumbs in anyone else's films) amid the sweaty, ragged grandeur of it all. Herzog is using Abel Ferrara's original Bad Lieutenant as a template, a jumping off point to make his own leaps into already-chartered territory. But he's still very much crafting his own film, filled with occasional visionary nuggets of inspired lunacy. (And all this raises the question of whether it results in a better film if the director doing the remaking has actually first seen the original or not - Herzog apparently claimed not to have - or if indeed this is actually a proper remake or not.)

Gunplay, Southern-style in Bad Lieutenant

If, as some folk have said, it's just Herzog treading water or creatively doodling, biding time before his next fully self-derived personal film, then that's actually fair enough. What's wrong with a few small sketches between bigger canvasses? Some directors tread with style. (And I've never been one to fully back the idea of a filmmaker having "major" and "minor" works.) But if that's indeed the case maybe Herzog is simply wowing us with a sideshow for the interim, a spinning plates routine where he doesn't really care too much if any of them fall and smash to the ground. Once in a while it's creatively healthy to let things casually break apart. And Herzog, Cage and co. provide more than sufficient glimpses of magic for the duration.

29 May 2010

Dennis Hopper dies age 74

It's such sad news that Dennis Hopper died today, at 74, from complications arising from prostrate cancer.

'Dennis Hopper 1971' by Andy Warhol

A handful of his 200-odd screen appearances that, for a variety of reasons, remain entirely memorable cornerstones of my Hopper watching over the years: Rebel Without a Cause, Giant, Tracks, Apocalypse Now, Rumble Fish, The Osterman Weekend, River's Edge, Blue Velvet, The Indian Runner, Red Rock West, Speed, Search and Destroy, Waterworld, Basquiat, The Blackout, Jesus' Son and Land of the Dead.

There are, of course, many more I've still to see: The Last Movie, Out of the Blue, Night Tide, Cool Hand Luke, Straight to Hell, Hoboken Hollow and Hell Ride have all been on my must-see list for quite some time.

Whenever the words Dennis Hopper appeared at the start of a film I knew that it would at least never be dull.

R.I.P. Mr. Hopper, Hope you had one last Pabst Blue Ribbon.

25 May 2010

Tuesday Title: Footprints/Le orme

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Footprints/Le orme (Luigi Bazzoni/Mario Fanelli/1975)

I saw Footprints only recently (on DVD via the excellent Shameless label), and from its first frame onwards it riveted my attention to the screen. I'm a major sucker for explorations of psychological imbalance in - more often than not - female main characters (films such as Carnival of Souls, Red Desert, Safe, Mulholland Dr. fit this template nicely) and Bazzoni's 1975 film joins their ranks. The film follows Italian translator Alice Cepsi (Florinda Bolkan) as she tries to piece together three missing days in her life.

Its opening title shot is a simple visual representation of Luigi Bazzoni's (and uncredited co-director Mario Fanelli's) overarching themes in Footprints. It's the figurehead image which connects Alice with the unaccounted for psychic gap in her existence. The image of the moon haunts her throughout the film. Its origin is either that of the dream she has - which seemingly and inexplicably lasts three days - or from the old black and white film (perhaps featuring the stranded astronaut that we see over the opening titles, and who intermittently pops up throughout the narrative) that she barely remembers watching years ago. Or maybe both. The film never tells us. Luna and lunacy are entwined in her mind: she may very well be the lost astronaut herself.

The all-caps, yellow and giallo-esque typography boldly appears on the screen, very nearly encapsulated within the expanse of the blueish-green moon behind it. It's a mysterious and - accompanied by the beautiful organ-lead score by Italian film composer Nicola Piovani - enticing first image. It leads you into the narrative unaware of exactly what form the plot will take. The lunar flashbacks/dream memories/film clips sit somewhat at odds with the remaining visual style of the film - although the flattened, neatly structured visuals of the film's first 20-or-so minutes that directly follow the opening (Bolkan is often shot behind layers of glass or dwarfed by austere architecture) are as coldly visualised as the blue-tinted black-and-white of the moon imagery.

Connections are made visually as well as psychologically, from the title onwards, and through to the fraught and despairing climax: astronaut-sized footprints are embedded into the sand on a beach in Garma, which, in an ultimately sad and terrifying manner, make for an uncanny parallel to the moon footage of the opening title. Footprints is a beautifully-made and truly unusual celestial horror film.

24 May 2010

What the '00s in film meant to me - in 10 images (plus additions)

Late last year and early this year many folk - critics, bloggers, cinemagoers etc, online and in print - collected together their End of the Decade favourites, lists of what they saw were the very best of the '00s. It was something I meant to do in January but my own list of favourites for 2009 took up too much time and I left compiling my '00s list for another time - now, to be exact.

So here, belatedly and for posterity, are my selections for ten films which I liked the most from 2000 to 2009. (Although, adversely, no actual films from 2009 were included as I had covered the year's films in my annual End of the Year round-up from February to April, so maybe some revisions will be likely someday - but I'll throw in my '09 top ten at the end for good measure.)

These ten films, plucked from a list of hundreds, are essentially the ones which meant the most to me. There were of course many, many more films which could easily have made the list (indeed this list will undoubtedly change over time, if I ever feel like returning to it), so I've added below a plethora of further titles - other films that, for me, defined the '00s almost as much as the main ten.

The main list is in alphabetical order, as, unlike the yearly lists, ordering a whole decade's worth was quite an insurmountable task. And I guess they all collectively occupy the decade's top spot.

Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee/2003)

Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee/2005)

Elephant (Gus Van Sant/2003)

The Forest for the Trees/Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (Maren Ade/2003)

Goodbye, Dragon Inn/Bu san (Tsai Ming-Liang/2003)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell/2001)

Inland Empire (David Lynch/2006)

Japanese Story (Sue Brooks/2004)

Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène/2004)

Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis/2001)

Other favourites from the '00s - in no order, and all equally deserving of individual praise (though perhaps another time):

The Son, The Pledge, Dark Days, Blackboards, Café Lumière, Vera Drake, Serenity, The Libertine, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, The Piano Teacher, Still Life, Summer Hours, Under the Sand, Five, The Bourne Ultimatum, Junebug, Tropical Malady, Last Resort, The Proposition, Ratatouille, Hunger, Minority Report, The World, Flight of the Red Balloon, The Descent, Adaptation., Head-On, Bad Santa, Battle in Heaven, Kandahar, Dead Man's Shoes, Tony Takitani, Ten, Mulholland Dr., Right at Your Door, The Host, What Time Is It There?, A.I. - Artificial Intelligence, A History of Violence, The Page Turner, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Friday Night, Yi Yi, The Wayward Cloud, You Can Count on Me, 28 Days Later..., Old Joy, Session 9, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Lorna's Silence, In My Skin, The Man Without a Past, Be Kind Rewind, Gerry, Werckmeister Harmonies, Far From Heaven , Love Liza, Spider, Russian Ark, My Summer of Love, Gozu, Zidane - A 21st Century Portrait, The Weather Man, Children of Men, Offside, Black Sun, Red Road, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Sisters In Law, Married Life, Margot at the Wedding, Syndromes and a Century, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Om Shanti Om, The Night of the Sunflowers, Zodiac, Daratt, Shotgun Stories, Private Property, Out of the Blue, The Gates, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Intruder - and the '09 ten: 35 Shots of Rum, Katalin Varga, Timecrimes, Wendy and Lucy, Two Lovers, The Invisible Frame, Martyrs, sleep furiously, Sugar, Bright Star.

Looking through all these films now I'm sure the list will change, and I'm certain I've missed several great titles off the list completely. Tomorrow things could all look very different...

18 May 2010

Tuesday Title: Elephant

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Elephant (Gus Van Sant/2003)

The spare typography (simple white Helvetica by Title House Digital) and imagery (a fixed shot of a telegraph pole and a streetlamp against a jade-green evening sky which - through Eric Edwards* time lapse photography - morphs into inky nighttime) that opens Elephant, the second film in Gus Van Sant's loose, unofficial 'Death Trilogy'** - after Gerry (2002) and before Last Days (2004) - is as unfussy, clear and direct as the actual film itself initially appears to be.

is all these things, but it does contain more within its seemingly slimmed narrative than what physically occurs on the screen in front of us. Of course, the visual scheme of the film includes horrific events (a fictionalised account of a high school shooting, essentially Columbine), but the crucial, dazed poetics of how Van Sant depicts these events (repeated sequences from varying perspectives, long, slow tracking shots over characters' shoulders, or tailing close behind them, slowed-down instances of interaction between one or more characters) hint at volumes of meaning beneath its surface. The film has innumerable buried complexities. Everything is frighteningly normal, but just ever-so disquieting: this is just a day, but not just any old day.

Its almost tactile, ever-shifting camerawork, shows us no symptoms or reasoning for what was about to happen, but it shows us - in a variety of fragmented, perhaps movable, scenes and moments - an unsolvable puzzle, a day broken up into, simply, the things that occurred before, during and just after the shootings at the school. The film's intelligent, artistically clear boldness is hinted at in the uncluttered elegance of the opening titles. Van Sant gets straight to the point because there's much to say here (or, more pertinently, much to leave judiciously unsaid).

Van Sant didn't need to open his film with anything other than a simple introductory image/text combination - we need to know what before the series of suggested whys, whens and hows. The following visuals told us everything we needed to know, piece by piece, and without much in the way of exterior complication. News coverage of real life events such as those depicted in Elephant look at every conceivable angle through journalistic means (as they should), but this is very much the artist's view: nonliteral and full of questioning; all content, and with a simple "headline". In this context the word 'Elephant' means many different perplexing things.

*Eric Edwards, Van Sant's sometime cinematography collaborator, did the time lapse photography in some scenes in Elephant; the great Harris Savides was the main, credited cinematographer

**or perhaps quadrilogy, if you count Paranoid Park (2007), which I do - each of all four of these films pairs untimely and/or unexpected death with youth in a variety of ways.

17 May 2010

Grace's Greatness: A Zabriskie Point

Today is Grace Zabriskie's birthday. 69 today and still proving she's one of the best actresses working in film and television. Many happy returns, Grace.

I've followed Ms. Zabriskie's career and been an ardent admirer of her work for the last twenty years. Out of her numerous film credits I've so far seen thirty-two; I'm constantly on the look out for the others I've still yet to see (I can be somewhat the completist in these matters). And of course there's the many TV shows she's appeared in: her amazing, heart wrenching performance in David Lynch's Twin Peaks - "Leland always found the other earring" - being the most high profile and resonant, and her acclaimed re-occurring role in HBO's Big Love being the most recent.

In total, since 1978, Grace has notched up 130-plus screen appearances (including film, TV, music video, short film etc) - and with many, many more to surely come. (on top of this Grace is also a talented poet and artist, too.) Of the thirty-two films that I've seen, so many of them stand out as exemplary and unforgettable. Grace has shown vast range in both comedy and drama, sci-fi and horror, big action movies and intimate Indies - and roles for several of today's most accomplished filmmakers (Lynch, Gus Van Sant, Werner Herzog, Jim McBride, Philip Ridley, Bob Rafelson, William Friedkin, Martin Ritt to name a few). Great work comes frequently and always with a singular style:

Norma Rae (1979), Galaxy of Terror (1981), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), M.A.D.D.: Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (1983), The Burning Bed (1984), The Big Easy (1986), Rampage (1987), The Boost (1988), The Ryan White Story (1989), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Child's Play 2 (1990), Prison Stories: Women on the Inside (1991), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), The Waterdance (1992), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), Drop Zone (1994), Bastard Out of Carolina (1996), Armageddon (1998), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), R.S.V.P. (2002), No Good Deed (2002), The Glow (2002), The Grudge (2004) and License to Wed (2007) - all such great, great turns (as, too, are the other TV roles she's played over the years).

as Mrs. Ross in Seinfeld

But there are two films which, for me, I can't imagine being played by anyone else in cinema:

As Laura Dern's sinister Polish neighbour in Inland Empire in 2006 (which I wrote about some time ago), where, with just fifteen minutes of screen time early on in the film (and a very telling brief appearance right at the end), she left the most indelible mark in my mind; her Visitor #1 could flip from delightful house guest to foreboding menace with a mere turn of her head. And, in a way, the whole film could be read as being all about her character: that last shot of her face is surely there for a reason. (Indeed all the work she's done with Lynch - as Laura Palmer's distraught mother Sarah in Twin Peaks (and again in the theatrical prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me in 1992) and her brilliantly bizarre - and ultimately affecting - voodoo-fixated Juana Durango in Wild at Heart (1990).)

as Visitor #1 in Inland Empire

And 1995's The Passion of Darkly Noon. Much has been (rightly) made of her brilliant depiction of grief in Twin Peaks, but equally as good, and maybe my very favourite performance from Grace, was her Roxy, the hermit-like 'woman of the woods' in this film from Philip Ridley. The scene where we see her reaction to the murder of her one companion, a Rottweiler, is riveting and so plausibly saddening. This was masterful stuff in a film more folk need to see. Grace is indeed the consummate actress of her generation. (Special mention should also go to her performance as Alena in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) - one of the roles which, along with Wild at Heart, first alerted me to Grace's greatness.)

as Lois Hendrickson in Big Love

Happy birthday Ms. Zabriskie. In your own unique way, you've made film-watching a total pleasure

11 May 2010

Tuesday Title: Antichrist

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Antichrist (Lars von Trier/2009)

As with his 'certification of authenticity' title frame for The Idiots (under his self-proclaimed 'Dogme95' manifesto - each Dogme95 entry opened with the same 'certified' title shot bearing the film's name) von Trier's opening title for Antichrist appears as a still-frame intertitle - a scratched, chalk-marked board with the film's title crudely etched onto it in red (lipstick? Blood?); the final 't' fashioned into the female gender symbol. It's inserted suddenly onto the screen, unaccompanied by no other title information.

It's as boldly confrontational and attention-grabbing as von Trier himself is known to be - especially with his appearance at last year's Cannes Film Festival where Antichrist premiered (and where he archly claimed, with the film as his proof, that he was "the best director in the world!"). His provocation was duly felt; audiences and critics alike went ga-ga over his controversy-baiting exploration of a grieving couple adrift in a self-made 'Eden' somewhere in a godless, but stunningly photographed, backwoods.

Fantastical Mr. Fox says: "Keep Fox Hunting Banned!... Oops, too late. I mean, Chaos Reigns!"

I think that the impact of this title on an audience's perception and understanding of the film's themes and ideas is perhaps limited and negligible; it effectively stands out as aesthetically inspired from most opening titles (not many title shots feel both as goading and, at the same time, as throwaway as this one) but it's essentially a nifty visual ploy, accompanied by ominous sound design, to simply draw us into the mysteries of the narrative. But it works well: a complimentary red and green typographic concoction to lull us with visual fascination. As soon as the film's title appeared I was on edge: partly intrigued and partly reluctant to find out what was about to happen in von Trier's forest of female fury.

Self-disemboweling, talking foxes, close-up genital mutilation, leg-vs-millstone-based torture and an abandoned thesis on gynocide, and - to top it all off nicely - three chapters headed Grief, Pain and Despair, all get thrown into von Trier's mixing pot (he sure knows how to draw the crowds in, huh?), but I'm not sure if chaos exactly reigned though. I got the feeling that all of it - the self-conscious artiness of both the opening title and the resulting film itself - was all provocation with a side order of chest-inflated bluster. Maybe von Trier surely hoped the fox's words (as well as the audacious closing dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky) were meant as nudging directives to all the critics that to cry hellfire about his film. From the title onwards: was the devil merely in the detail?

9 May 2010

Albert Finney: still not letting the bastards grind him down

Albert Finney, one of my favourite actors of all time, is 74 today. Happy birthday Mr. Finney. Thank you for so many great and amazing cinematic moments - and some of the very best pieces of acting put on film.

Of course, there is Tom Jones (1963), Scrooge (1970), Gumshoe (1971), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Duellists (1977), Shoot the Moon (1982), The Dresser (1983), Under the Volcano (1984), Washington Square (1997), Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000) and Big Fish (2003) and many more. But my personal favourite quintet are:

Miller's Crossing (1990) gunning down mobsters to the strains of Danny Boy
The Browning Version (1994) falling heartbreakingly apart
A Man of No Importance (1994) ditto above, for Oscar Wilde
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) shaming most lead performances that year

and, most of all:

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
(1960) striking out, reaching out in his very own way

"Mam called me barmy when I told her I fell of a gasometer for a bet. But I'm not barmy, I'm a fighting pit prop that wants a pint of beer, that's me. But if any knowing bastard says that's me I'll tell them I'm a dynamite dealer waiting to blow the factory to kingdom come. Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not because they don't know a bloody thing about me! God knows what I am."
- Finney as George Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Mr. Finney, you're one of the very best, that's what you are. Keep on striking out: there's still too many wonderful performances you're yet to give. Many happy returns.

At the Cinema: I Am Love

I Am Love/Io sono l'amore (Luca Guadagnino/2009) Italy/120 mins. *****

Almost a month after seeing Luca Guadagnino's new film I Am Love I'm still very much in love with it; the honeymoon period is lasting and remains in full effect; I doubt very much it'll wane any time soon. I hadn't seen a new film that uses all the fundamental tools of filmmaking so fully, and so rapturously, for what seems like the longest time. All components - direction, cinematography, music, acting, editing - are fused together in a grandly stylish manner and topped off with the kinds of unfashionable cinematic flourishes (swooping and swooning crane shots, fast zooms, romanticised montages which pair sex with nature, frequent broad and expansive vistas) not too commonly seen in a great many contemporary world cinema releases.

The plot is deceptively simple: the Recchi family, an affluent Milanese textiles dynasty of three generations, gather for a momentous birthday dinner whereupon the ailing patriarch, and head of the family company, Eduardo Sr (Gabriele Ferzetti), announces his successors to be son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and - to everyone's surprise - grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti). Present are all the extended family, including Edo's new girlfriend Eva (Diane Fleri) and his sister Betta (Alba Rohrwacher). After the dinner, Tancredi's Russian-born wife Emma (Tilda Swinton) unexpectedly meets Edo's chef friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) when he brings a gift of a birthday cake. Some months later, after Eduardo Sr has died, a chance meeting between Emma and Antonio starts in motion a series of events which tests the bonds of the family and ignites Emma's previously withheld passions.

Food is the language of love: Edoardo Gabbriellini and Tilda Swinton

Some folk may see I Am Love's uncommon adherence to formal style - and many of its flushed, vibrantly detailed sequences - as possibly corny, overly florid or all-style-no-substance cinema. But instead of it appearing outmoded, Guadagnino's richly inspired experimentation and unabashed immersion in the heightened details of romantic filmmaking mark the film out as particularly audacious and unafraid to strive for something new, something sensory and altogether more invigorating in the face of more faddish cinematic trends - whilst at the same time discreetly acknowledging a history of grandiose filmmaking (Visconti, Sirk and Hitchcock have been mentioned in passing, but their influence is - to my mind anyhow - piecemeal and temperately acknowledged).

The first half of the film (set in a chilly Milan) maps out in narrative, and indeed psychological, terms the formalities of the affluent family structure (through its hierarchies, social standing and so on) but as plot events veer toward the sunnier climate of Sanremo, and Emma's furtive affair with Antonio begins to bloom, an openness is gradually introduced into the story - and within Emma herself - and the filmmaking correspondingly begins to consciously thaw; it becomes more intimate, the camera frees itself up to drink in all the romanticism: like Emma (perhaps egged on by her discovery of a letter revealing daughter Betta's true sexuality), the film itself breaks away from its previous ceremonious rigour and becomes more attentive to desires that were at first buried.

Tilda searches for something more in her life (and in her handbag)

One early scene - just before Emma and Antonio's relationship takes flight - has Emma, Eva and Emma's mother-in-law Allegra (Marisa Berenson) eat at the restaurant where Antonio works: he makes Emma a prawn risotto, and as she tastes it Guadagnino uses his camera to convey her rapture through lighting tricks (the two other women fade into darkness) and colourful close-ups (the plate of food, the fork in Emma's mouth). It's like gastronomic foreplay for the pair, and it works. Guadagnino's elaborately wrought signalling of their bond through something such as a meal might seem a bit too ripe if it didn't actually both infer a connection between them and, strange as it may seem, foreshadow the tragedy at the start of the film's last act. Instead of seeming ridiculous the use of the camera in an overblown, almost operatic way affords plenty of visual pleasures. A swirling, all-in-one crane shot following Emma - as she leaves a party to go downstairs and secretly kiss Antonio - and then the preparation of a meal and the servants who take it back upstairs to the awaiting guests - was so beautifully constructed and seamlessly carried out that it deserves its own singular appreciation.

But Guadagnino confidently conveys all elements of the film with bold conviction. He maps out a specific milieu and hits it spot on. To my mind, there isn't one misjudged shot or questionable artistic decision anywhere in the film: it's near faultless. Tilda Swinton (who learnt both Russian and Italian for the role) is spellbinding - in the way that only she can often be - as Emma, and the rest of the cast are equally as splendid. French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux's (who worked with Swinton on 2008's Julia) lighting is instrumental in arousing exactly the perfect mood for each scene, and John Adams music is nothing less than essential - it surrounds the film with a fitting grandeur (it's possibly the best and most rousing score for a film since Alexandre Desplat's amazing music for 2004's Birth - a film which I Am Love is partially similar to). The film's ending is bombastic, even more heightened than anywhere earlier and comes on like a forceful emotional crescendo (and it's here where all the tools of cinema culminate perfectly).

Pippo Delbono and Swinton face off in I Am Love

There have been several films released so far this year which have been accused of priding style over content, and with each one I've none the less found there to be a great amount of valid content to immerse myself in. A Single Man ('60s jazzy LA), Shutter Island (rain-washed '40s noir) and now I Am Love ('00s turn of the century love song) have all been mentioned in terms of their respective filmmakers taking a look back at cinema's past to eke out newfilmic territory. But in a climate where there's an overabundance of derivative rom-coms, over-budgeted spectacle or over-familiar gritty worthiness, personalised and uncharacteristically adventurous filmmaking of this quality is to be applauded, not least for attempting to provide an alternative viewing experience. (And every genre or movement of film draws on its own past.) Films like this, that sink a spectator deep into their worlds through an array of bold cinematic devices, are too few and far between.

What Guadagnino and Tilda Swinton (and indeed all involved) achieve with I Am Love is something to be rightfully cherished and savoured. (It came to fruition after nearly 11 years of planning and production). It's full to the brim, and occasionally overflowing, with a wondrous level of cinematic substance - emotional and aesthetic, passionate and visually skilled - of the kind that doesn't often come along in any given year. It's a personal hymn to Italian cinema, a bold exploration of freeing oneself from imposed societal limits (and denunciation of constraining responsibility) and an open letter to all those that crave that little bit more beauty in cinema. It's a cryptically mysterious melodrama and an all-sirens-blazing celebration of love. But more than all this, I Am Love is a film that feels alive.

8 May 2010

At the Cinema: A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Samuel Bayer/2010) USA/95 mins. *****

If Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger stood for some kind of warped movie killer election, who would you vote for?

Michael Myers is the longest-standing candidate, having begun his career in 1978 and served 22 terms in movie-villain "office". Jason has the most staying power; at present count he's been re-elected ten times (12 if you count the 2003 coalition with Freddy and the 2009 reboot). Freddy, however, has served the least time, but he did broker a hefty deal on high-profile marketing, and is currently plastered all over the web for a new A Nightmare on Elm Street, so he's the most topically relevant right now. But who stays in power? You decide!

Daft and somewhat tenuous election links aside, this trio of slasher-film titans of terror have over the last three years re-emerged in new, though not necessarily improved, incarnations in three variable remakes of the most visible of the late-'70s-early-'80s horror franchises. Mike was first up in 2007 for Rob Zombie's Halloween, followed two years later by Jason's return to Camp Crystal Lake on Friday the 13th, and now Michael Bay has awoken Freddy (in the same way he dredged up Jason, not before asking Leatherface out to play) for another run of nightmares on Elm Street.

The new film, though, is an inept regurgitation of many of the not-so-good bits only from Wes Craven's 1984 original. Its secondhand narrative is vastly laboured and clunky from beginning to end. Some of Craven's best bits are half repeated though massively fudged (Nancy's deep bathe with Freddy is here merely a hand protruding from bath water; Jesse's (Thomas Dekker) - Rod in Craven's film - murder in jail is unimaginative, though now vastly bloodier, and arrives via Freddy's knife-glove, where it was a hanging-by-proxy in the original), and the moments that are picked up wholesale from first time around are weaker by comparison (Kris' midnight wander into her garden has none of the icky scariness of Tina's sweat-inducing original backyard encounter with Freddy; and Nancy's mum's rubber-bodied - and cheaply hilarious - death by being pulled through a door's too-small window at the close of Craven's film is now a CGI-enhanced pulled-into-a-mirror attack). Some scenes from the '84 film are randomly forked up and ignominiously scattered throughout: the mattress-gushing ceiling of blood doesn't occur during Kris' (Tina in Craven's film) bed-based death, as it did in the original, but later on when Nancy is plopped back to reality after one rather uneventful nightmare escape - which features not the original's inspired staircase of goo but a whole hallway of tar-like gloop).

Make yourself useful and hand me the Radox, Freddy!

Of course, Bay and Bayer (like Dumb & Dumber, but less perceptive) are clearly keen to avoid a straight retread, but in missing out the parts that made the original film horribly memorable they lose sight of why it worked well enough to start with. One character, emo-mope Quentin (Kyle Gallner), is introduced too-late in the film as a member of his school's swim team - purely, it seems, for the fact that a swimming pool could then act as a conduit to shunt him from waking life to Freddy's nightmare world (and to draft in some ill-placed exposition). But everything about his character (Joy Division t-shirt, Gothic posters and so on) suggests he's as far from athletic as can be - the crowbars and shoehorns are actually visible. With every aspect of this reboot it's as if B&B have remodelled an old car with new-fangled components all in the wrong order. I'm no remake basher for the sake of it, but this Nightmare (as with Bay's other botch jobs) very nearly tests my resolve to its limit.

The mainly pallid, Twilight-lite, pill-popping teen cast make little impact, save for Katie Cassidy (so good in TV's excellent Dynasty-meets-Friday the 13th horror soap Harper's Island last year) as Kris - but she exits the film way too soon, leaving open a gaping hole to be filled by Rooney Mara (as Nancy) and Gallner as the somnambulistic final leads. (Is it a prerequisite that only in horror remakes do the more glam, blond types fare much worse than the sulky Marilyn Manson types?) Either way, a better replacement for the dull Mara would've been Madeline Zima (Heroes' Gretchen), who has the unconventional looks and fragile tenor (as did Heather Langenkamp circa '84) to pull off the role with increasing vigour and fearfulness: if there's a sequel - and inevitably there will be - keep your diary clear Madeline, you could still be Nancy!

The adults don't fare any better either. At least Ronee Blakley and John Saxon acted like weary, concerned parents for Craven - here Nancy's mum and Quentin's dad simply feel like shrugging bystanders. And as for Freddy (Jackie Earle Haley) himself, he has all the menace of a mildly irked pork scratching. And, boy, does he deliver his lines as if, like the rest of the cast, he's sleepwalking his way through a nightmare he surely wished wasn't of his own making.

Lady Gaga's latest outfit goes down a storm at Springwood High.

With his Platinum Dunes production outfit Bay has gracelessly chucked out a variety of cheaply made horror remakes and rehashes in recent years (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003, The Amityville Horror in 2005, The Hitcher in 2007 and Friday the 13th in 2009), and Nightmare sits alongside them without upsetting his shoddy applecart. Music-video directors both, Marcus Nispel (who directed both the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th remakes) and this Nightmare's director Samuel Bayer are essentially Bay's hired help - go-to guys when his need for a new horror hack arises. Rob Zombie at least attempted to put his own stamp on Halloween mark 2. The difference here, though, is that Zombie's particularly grisly horror sensibilities were felt in his remake. His style may have been derivative but he injected much enthusiasm and a lifetime's worth of horror movie adoration into it; his was a fan-made film at least - the other two are merely fairweather dabblers; they'd likely shoot anything Bay pays them to. It feels as if the real villain here is actually Bay; Freddy Krueger is just his latest onscreen right-hand man.

But perhaps Bay's short-sighted policies with his Nightmare retread weren't ever going to inspire in me a positive response. I cast my vote for longevity: I'm a Michael Myers supporter through and through (though I'm occasionally a tactical voter: my traitorous movie-lover's nature allows me to secretly campaign for Jason from time to time). My first and latest - and indeed every one of the seven-or-eight in between - trips to John Carpenter's Haddonfield have, each time, left me quiveringly fearful of what an unstoppable slasher movie villain is capable of. All three of these famous movie killers got eye-rollingly sillier as, over the years, their respective sequels' storylines became more elaborately OTT. But somehow Halloween night, or a stay at Camp Crystal Lake, has always been preferable to a jaunt down Elm Street.

No Tongues, Blank Bullets: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black/2005)

There’s always been a bit of noir-inspired thinking surrounding the titles in Shane Black’s screenwriting filmography: The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout, A.W.O.L. and Lethal Weapon all sound like chapter headings that could've perhaps come from a Raymond Chandler novel (though the film is partially based on mystery writer Brett Halliday's book Bodies Are Where You Find Them). With Kiss Kiss Bang Bang though, he made that thinking a priority and used the famous Pauline Kael quote (in describing "the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies" regarding James Bond movies) for his directorial debut.

The film itself isn’t as inspired as its title though. It's back-slapping and clever-clever, filled with a few tiresome Tarantino-inspired quips here and there, and with many action sequences that felt about a decade out of date. Hip and knowing? Not really. It's like a queered-up episode of Moonlighting without the naff charm, when it obviously wanted to be The Next Big Cool Thing. After an hour or so you can feel the credibility straining. Maybe being out of the loop for so long had harmed Black's sense of currency. (And it's perhaps telling that he hasn't written anything new since.)

Kilmer and Downey Jr. proudly displaying their lethal weapons in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer play, respectively, a small-time thief who gets mistaken for an actor and a gay PI, who join up to investigate a complex kidnap-murder case involving an Hollywood heiress. Both actors perform well together, but whilst some dialogue is snappy (“if you have a problem – hesitate to call!”), the characterisation is lazy. There doesn't seem any valid reason whatsoever for Kilmer's character to be gay other than the fact it - perhaps aroused through a scriptwriter's idea-less desperation - makes for an odd pairing with Downey's affably louse-like demeanor; and through this it aims for a few cheap, underhand laughs (it's a puzzle whether or not the filmmakers intend any of the gay-themed banter to seem underhanded or just guilefully playful). But Kilmer's character is more an embodiment of a comedy characteristic than fully-embodied character.

The (few) women in the film are either luckless, scantily clad starlets, grim-faced casting agents or needy fruit-loops (and not even interesting in their loopiness like Fiona Shaw was in de Palma's The Black Dahlia). Admirable female representation surely wasn't high on Black's list of priorities, but any noir - old or new - can rest or fall on how seductive, wily or fascinating its femme fatales appear. And here Black draws a blank. (Imagine Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck's role played by, say, a post-rehab Lindsay Lohan - it doesn't work.)

Kilmer shows Downey Jr who's the top in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Despite positioning itself as a '00s meta-take on the Film noir or crime film, it's just the same 'ol thing as before for Black but only with some well-placed narrative diversions to throw people of its faded scent. There's scant difference from this film and countless other boys 'n' their toys shoot-‘em-ups that got so tired years ago. It's an upgrading of Lethal Weapon etc with added Meta-jokiness. It wants to be so much more - but it’s not. The Long Kiss Goodnight, for – or actually because of - all its overblown daftness, was far more enlivening and entertaining ten years before this (and there a strong-willed Geena Davis got to take down bad guys whilst strapped to a rotating wheel!).

It aims to be noir remixed and restyled but hasn't got enough solid ideas, purpose or savviness required to make it truly take flight. It feels like Black skimmed through a dictionary of Film Noir terms and plucked out and inserted all the bits that would simply easily sit with his no-nonsense approach. It takes the tropes of noir at face value only, and reflects back nothing but a transparent collection of scenarios we've all seen before, and in better films. It's Brick for the older brother who will remember Black's screen work from its first orbit. And the only noir thing about him is his surname.

4 May 2010

Tuesday Title: Blue Velvet

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Blue Velvet (David Lynch/1986)

It's all blue. A swaying pair of curtains (blue velvet of course) - perhaps cut from the same cloth as the gown covering Dorothy Vallens' (Isabella Rossellini) bruised, beaten body, and, therefore, the strip snipped from it that Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) fondles when she sings "and I still can see blue velvet through my tears" - move and ripple on a darkened stage. Or is it a floating barrier, shielding us from the deeper recesses of David Lynch's imagination?... Which he then parts anyway, to reveal to us over the following two hours just what goes on in his version of smalltown America: it's the doorway to severed ears, nightclub singers and the mysteries of love and Lumberton logs.

Lynch lives for these curtains - usually red, but here blue; deeply textured and hiding a world of waking nightmares. The film's titles appear slowly - very slowly - over these inky-hued drapes; all beautifully flowing in a whitish serif script - embodying film noir but with a Sirkian tint. They emerge (accompanied by the drum roll of Angelo Badalamenti's noirish '50s-inspired and -sounding main theme music) not quite letting on what Blue Velvet itself might be about, but bearing a promise of mysterious events to come: is it actually all down to the Bobby Vinton title song? Or is the meaning of the film's title, and indeed the fabric used to conjure it up, merely an early visual nod toward a plot maguffin - the kind to make Hitchcock grin from beyond the grave with glee? Or does it simply sound... just too dreamy?

The score and type together suggest a torrid romance, a heightened drama in a retroactive style (this was 1986 looking back at, and fused with, the 1950s); it could be a parodic glance back to the innocence of middle America three decades prior. But it's more deceptive than that: it's an opening that invites us fully into Lynch's smalltown detective story in a fateful, all-encompassing way. Because of how evocatively and suggestively Blue Velvet begins we all become budding detectives, budding Jeffrey Beaumonts.

The words and images that start Lynch's '80s masterpiece position us perfectly to enter into Frank and Dorothy's world. And by the time the words 'Directed by David Lynch' bring the titles to an end, and the blue curtains dissolve to reveal his stage to be the bright skies above the picket fences and neatly-ordered rose bushes of Lumberton, we know there's no going back. And in fact, we don't want to - however long it takes for the robins to finally come.

And remember: "Logs, logs, logs. Lumberton, U... S... A...!! At the sound of the falling tree, it's 1:30, and this is the mighty voice of Lumberton, the town where people really know how much wood a woodchuck chucks."

3 May 2010

Lynn Redgrave Dies Age 67

Lynn Redgrave has died age 67, from what is believed to be breast cancer, which she suffered from during the last seven years (although this has yet to be fully confirmed). This sad news comes a month after her brother, fellow actor Corin Redgrave, and just over a year since niece Natasha Richardson both passed away. It's been a sad and devastating time for the Redgrave/Richardson families.

Redgrave was a greatly talented actress who, altogether, appeared in nearly 100 films and TV shows, along with much acclaimed theatre work. Major and notable roles were as Georgy in Georgy Girl (1966) (which gained her the first of two Oscar nominations; the second was for Gods and Monsters in 1998), as the Queen in Woody Allen's Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Scott Hicks' Shine (1996) and alongside sister Vanessa Redgrave and Richardson in James Ivory's The White Countess in 2005.

Two from Redgrave: left, in Gods and Monsters; right in Spider

My personal favourites roles were as Ian McKellen's (as Frankenstein director James Whale) loyal housekeeper Hanna in Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters, and, coincidentally, as another housekeeper, Mrs. Wilkinson, in David Cronenberg's Spider (2002). Both were incredible performances which greatly enhanced their respective films with a singular style and conviction.

Her resignedly withering Hanna in Gods and Monsters was rightly honoured by the Academy (she gave by far the best of the five nominated supporting actress turns that year, although Judi Dench won for Shakespeare in Love) and she effortlessly matched McKellen scene-for-scene in the film. And in Spider she added to the film's air of sly menace and gave an indelible turn as the staid but mysterious Mrs. Wilkinson, the owner of the halfway where Ralph Fiennes' Spider stays. It's for these two great, crucial supporting performances that I'll remember her work the most.

RIP Lynn Redgrave (1943 - 2010)

2 May 2010

Dark Eye Socket Experiences Film: TFE Round-up so far

About roughly a month ago I took up the opportunity to contribute to Nathaniel Rogers' excellent 'The Film Experience' blog. Below are links to the pieces I've contributed so far - handily assembled for quick and easy perusal. Some entries are stand-alone comments on actors or appraisals of selected films, and some are joint discussions (with co-contributors) on upcoming films.

Abbie Cornish: Spinning Career Somersaults - Looking back at Abbie Cornish's debut lead movie role
Three Steps to McGregor - Ewan McGregor's birthday
Monday Monologue: Annie Wilkes - Kathy Bates delivers a Misery-filled monologue
We Can't Wait: What's Wrong with Virginia - Thoughts on an incoming 2010 film
We Can't Wait: It's Kind of a Funny Story - Discussion on an incoming 2010 film
We Can't Wait: The Kids Are All Right - Discussion on an incoming 2010 film
We Can't Wait: Rabbit Hole - Discussion on an incoming 2010 film
We Can't Wait: Never Let Me Go - Discussion on an incoming 2010 film
We Can't Wait: Black Swan - Discussion on an incoming 2010 film
We Can't Wait: The Tree of Life - Discussion on an incoming 2010 film
Pull Up to Dave's Bumper, Baby! - Looking back at Cronenberg's Crash
Olivier Assayas' Summer Love-In - DVD review of Summer Hours
There's Something About Uma - Uma Thurman's birthday