31 March 2011

At the Cinema: Essential Killing

Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowski/2010) Poland, Norway, Ireland, Hungary/83mins. **½

Vincent Gallo goes to great lengths to run from the enemy in Essential Killing, Jerzy Skolimowski‘s new film about a (possible) Taliban defector’s AWOL escapades after he blows a trio of US soldiers to smithereens in a cavernous valley somewhere maybe in Afghanistan or Iraq or, perhaps, it's somewhere... indescribably other. Labelling is a no-go area here. There’s visual detailing, but no contextual prescription: there are no names and next-to-no dialogue throughout the film’s 83-minute runtime – just moments of action, then inaction. It’s less the kind of action which usefully propels the narrative forward – essentially a stop-start trek through a range of increasingly laboured situations and terrains – and more a series of unfortunately absurd survival scenarios. Amongst their number: Gallo’s impromptu roadside breast-feeding from a rightfully irate woman (if there’s some kind of infancy message inferred within this scene, surrounding the Gallo character, then the film is all the worse for it); a typically uncomfortable waterboarding scene; several killings (essential or otherwise) awkwardly carried out on the snowy wastelands; and a moment where Gallo vomits up blood onto a horse.

Skolimowski clearly subscribes to the ‘actions speak louder than words’ adage, but his action often mumbles. He can conjure up some alarming and intriguing images that fit into his frustrating yet straightforward plot (the expanse of trailing footprints in snow, a disorientating night-time truck wreck), but they’re clearly visual aids to a deliberately evasive message. (Does it all merely boil down to eye-for-an-eye statistics?) Such oblique goading of an audience’s concerns can come across as slightly circuitous polemicising. And as such the nagging feeling of overriding emptiness, of blithe unconcern, for the darkly reticent adventure acted out so earnestly and woefully on screen doesn’t ever fully abate for Essential Killing’s slim duration. Gallo suffers hard – but ultimately what for? Essentially it’s up to us to decipher his lot. But the film perhaps confuses intrigue with puzzlement for much of its brief span.

28 March 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Michael Pitt

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

Take One: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) Pitt’s weedy teenage wannabe rock imp Tommy Gnosis (The Jesus freak army brat formerly known as Tommy Speck – then, very nearly, Tommy Ache) got to grapple with Hedwig’s Angry Inch in unconventionally inventive ways back in 2001. John Cameron Mitchell’s slip-up-operation rock opera, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, was like nothing else on screen at the time. If you could avert your eyes from internationally ignored “icon” Hedwig’s shining beacon of starlight, then hidden in the flared remnants, and on the sidelines, was Pitt’s Tommy. He was initially willing to dote on her every word but eventually reluctant to acknowledge his own sneaky appropriation of her back catalogue. He became the big star; Hedwig toured the fish restaurants of America.

Read the rest here

21 March 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Gloria Grahame

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

Take One: The Big Heat (1953). When you think of Film Noir, you think of hard-boiled anti-heroes in fedoras, smoking, permanently with gun. But in some noirs it’s ladies first. Fritz Lang’s dirty, masterful noir par excellence The Big Heat has a first-rate femme fatale in Grahame’s Debby Marsh. Thank 20th Century Fox for replacement pleasures then: Grahame stepped in when original pick Marilyn Monroe’s fee became too high, giving the the film an extra sprinkling of salty sass. She excelled in each moment, whether heartfelt or hardened; I can only hazard a guess that Monroe might have made Debby’s eventual desperation too pleading. Under Grahame’s control Debby’s desperate dilemma was frenetic and wrenching. Never has the rapid flush of devastation been so well conveyed on screen as when she runs to Glenn Ford’s apartment to beg for cover.

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15 March 2011

A History of Cinema... David Cronenberg's Birthday

Happy 68th birthday to the one and only David Cronenberg, one of the true certified filmmaking visionaries. The imagery in his films has thrilled me for twenty-plus years and I'm sure it will continue to do so for many more. Each one of his new films - or even a repeat of one of his old films - is an event to be met with a grotesquely marvellous cheer!

Here he is below, shooting a scene from A History of Violence in 2004. (This link takes you to a review of the film from DarkEyeSocket in October 2008 - word of warning: it's in need of some revision and a judicious edit.)

He's currently in post-production on his 19th feature film (I'm including mini-features Stereo and Crimes of the Future) A Dangerous Method, due out later this year or early 2012. I hope he's spending his birthday in true Cronenberg style - plugging into an eXistenZ game pod, say, or surfing late night channels for the next airing of Videodrome.

Left shot: Videodrome (1983)


Right Shot: eXistenZ (1999)

Long Live the New Flesh! Long Live David Cronenberg!

13 March 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Anthony Mackie

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

Take One: Half Nelson Mackie puts in a vital and sincere performance in 2006 indie drama Half Nelson. He’s Frank, a former friend of Drey’s (Shareeka Epps) jailed brother and a Brooklyn drug dealer, who is intent on dragging Drey into his orbit as a local drug mule. That's an idea that her teacher Dan (Ryan Gosling) takes umbrage with, especially in one riveting scene where Dan confronts Frank on the street, warning him to leave her alone. Mackie avoids the overplayed clichés in portraying drug dealers on screen. He’s calm, charming and actually feels he’s helping by keeping Drey near. He wins Dan around, in a way, too. He’s just someone making his way, just like everyone else in Ryan Fleck’s sombre, thoughtful film...

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7 March 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Marisa Tomei

"Take Three", my regular column (every Sunday, three write-ups on three performances in a supporting/character actor's career) over at The Film Experience, started again this week. First up was Marisa Tomei.

Take One: Cyrus. Tomei is a pure delight in last year’s Cyrus. Her performance demonstrated yet again that great comic turns sometimes pass awards bodies by. But one Oscar win (for My Cousin Vinny, see below) and two other nominations ain’t too shabby. In Cyrus Tomei, at this glorious mid-stage in her career, showed her peers how unblemished by cliché a modern, mature romantic woman should be played. She’s tried more conventional rom-com roles previously – What Women Want, Only You, Someone Like You – but here, with an unstudied attractiveness, she succeeds where others often fail...

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6 March 2011

At the Cinema: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance/2010) USA/112mins. ****

Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is a moody, broody marriage doodle. A small in scale yet universally resonant portrait of a lovestruck pair; one that carries with it for two hours a dual container of juxtaposing emotions that continually slosh against the film frame. It’s married life composed in a dour funk, with every one of the hopeful, spoiled, merry and soiled moments thoroughly kneaded in to show us just to what extent, and how, love can fail. Blue collar valentines Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) meet, fall in love and fall apart. This is essentially all that happens.

But it’s in how the couple go about these familiar events, how they are conducted and managed, and how the two of them are left to weather the days of bored despair that hit the heart hard. We never see those days of bored despair – like, say, those of the Longhettis in A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes may well have been a likely inspiration to Cianfrance) – but we get the harsh outcomes, singled out pain-filled hours and moments which come about due to the resounding sting of utter relationship failure. The coarse details are found in individual moments, the minute actions and morsels of dialogue that speak volumes about a bad situation without need for loud, obvious metaphorical thuds.

Cianfrance (who also co-wrote – with Cami Delavigne) structures the narrative as a card-shuffle of alternating good times/bad times – they meet brightly in an old folks’ home, misspend bonking time in a hotel, banter with work colleagues, convene for various minor and major home life joys and traumas – which are incredibly well edited (by Jim Helton and Ron Patane). Cianfrance apparently spent nearly twelve years working on the film. The attention to well-refined, personalised relationship detail is acutely considered. His perseverance and the resulting collaborative efforts of his cast and crew are all round expertly crafted to make distinct points about both furtive and diminishing aspects of mutual adoration.

Both Gosling and Williams reportedly honed their roles through rigorous improvisation but it hardly ever shows whenever the two are either in the midst of a verbal battle or an amiable encounter; only once or twice – with the odd actorly flourish possibly brought on by the frequency of close-ups – does improv make itself shyly known. But both William and Gosling take mile-wide strides ahead of most of their peers in the best of their scenes, which is virtually all of them. (I’ll gladly add to the throng of reviewers aghast at Gosling’s lack of Oscar credit to go alongside Williams’ well-earned nomination.)

Blue Valentine is fuelled and defined by these two performances; their high quality makes for distinctive drama that painfully needles, with a great deal of genuine perception, both the sweet and the unsavoury habits of love. I don’t think I’ve seen such an intense yet melancholic scrutiny on heterosexual break-up on screen since Wim Wenders wrung several years’ worth of tears out of Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas. Watch it with the one you love. Or, er, not.

5 March 2011

Happy Broody Birthday Samantha Eggar

Happy 72nd birthday to a fantastic and often underrated actress Samantha Eggar.

Samantha Eggar in The Brood

Eggar won the Best Actress award at Cannes for The Collector in 1965 (and also snagged an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for it in 1966). She also starred in The Uncanny (1977), The Exterminator (1980), Curtains (1983), The Phantom (1996) and The Astronaut's Wife (1999) among many others. But my favourite role was as the fantastically named Nola Carveth in David Cronenberg's 1979 masterpiece The Brood. Never has the term 'mother knows best' seemed so gruesomely and disturbingly wrong. Nola was a portrait of hysterically warped and brilliantly bonkers motherly mania. Eggar gamely threw herself into the middle of its sci-fi/horror worldand delivered her performance with clear, delectable relish. She could knock your socks off without even having to get out of bed...

"I seem to be a very special person now. I'm in the middle of a strange adventure." And how, Nola.

Trailer for The Brood:

3 March 2011

The Human Centipede (from The Hub, May 2010)

For general fun and film-based frolics here is an article I was asked to write for the Hub Magazine's website (still currently down/awaiting restart) last year to drum up reader interest, and ponder what the the fuss might be, regarding 2009 horror film The Human Centipede (First Sequence). I wanted to repost it here to give it some kind of online home. The readership of the magazine is primarily (high) fashion-based, therefore it's pitched to appeal to a wider-than-just-horror cohort, to say the least. But lord knows what they made of an article on a film about a guy who sews three people together for fun...

Ever wondered what Jake and Dinos Chapman would make out of Frankenstein? Well, with new horror film The Human Centipede (First Sequence) we may have an answer. This new extreme surgical torture film from Dutch director Tom Six is another in the grim line of contemporary shock-horror films - such as Saw, Hostel, Captivity, Frontière(s) etc - which have risen to prominence over the last ten-or-so years.

The Human Centipede recently caused quite a stir on its US release (April 2010) and its controversy may well be repeated when it gets a release here in the UK (August 2010). The furore surrounding the film has all to do with its grossly novel premise, which can be easily gleaned from its promotional posters. It doesn't need spelling out, it's there in the title: crazed doctor creates living arthropod by joining together three hapless victims. Somehow being the back end of a panto cow doesn't seem so bad after all.

This particular trend in 'gorno' horror to reduce audiences into wincing bags of psychological nerves has increased year after year since Jigsaw first opened his basement to a handful of unwilling victims in 2004's Saw - the puzzle fit and surprise successful franchise was born. Shock tactics are the horror genre's meat 'n' potatoes: Hitchcock gave Janet Leigh an early bath (well, shower) in Psycho; Linda Blair turned heads (including her own) in The Exorcist; Bruce the shark surfaced to gnash his Jaws at a surprised Sheriff Brody; and a mini xenomorph gave John Hurt the worst chest pains imaginable in Alien. But many recent horrors have gone that bit further. As the desire in audiences for The Ultimate Scare has increased over the years, some filmmakers are less inclined to make us jump, and more keen to test our gag reflexes.

These films are looking inward, zeroing in on, and within, the human body for a deeper investigation into what makes us most afraid. The invasion of the body is tantamount to absolute fear, and always has been; the thought of death at the hands of the unknown fuels our fears. But more upsetting, more radical, they seem to suggest, is the prolonged and tortuous journey to the grave. Simply dying in horror cinema isn't cutting it these days. The need for unparalleled cinematic suffering has somewhat sidelined the slasher, the zombie and the garden-variety bogeyman. The likes of Hostel, Martyrs and Inside have posited entrapment and torture as the genre's in-thing: it's not when, but how. But it looks as if The Human Centipede may have shifted things into a new medically-dubious area.

Is it the latest in the tradition of Cronenbergian or Miike-like explorations of body horror (Jeff Goldblum's evolution into The Fly, the full-grown-man birth scene in Gozu for example), or a more jokey, scatalogically-fixated counterpart? Something the Farrelly bros. might well come up with if they ventured into horror filmmaking? The numerically leading subtitle in parentheses in the film's full title points to inevitable sequels, and indeed there are rumours of a (Full Sequence) currently in production - this time featuring twelve unlucky centi-peeps. (Well, it has been a long time since creepy-crawlies have given us a cinematic fright). But let's see if this first flick is simply great or just plain gross first shall we?

The derision and - in some quarters - outrage it's so far been largely met with suggest that Tom Six has crossed a line. But, ultimately, should a film with such a daftly preposterous premise really be taken too seriously? Isn't it after all just a horror movie with a bit of added, ahem, tongue in cheek? Either way, it's unlikely that the central centipede trio in the film will sign up for Dr. Christian Jessen's Embarrassing Bodies waiting list any time soon.

1 March 2011

Review: Travellers (FrightFest)

Review of new DVD Travellers (out in the UK Feb. 28th) for the FrightFest website.

The first rule of Caravan Club is: do not leave your caravan unattended. The second rule of Caravan Club is: seriously guys, do not leave your caravan unattended... because a bunch of hapless city slackers will trash it and spray paint it with offensive words like “pikey scum.” This is exactly what happens to the mobile abode of a group of Irish bare-knuckle boxing travellers. Four city lads – Chris (Shane Sweeney), Andy (Tom Geoffrey), Dan (Alex Marsden) and Jon (Ben Richards) – make a stop on their motor-biking adventure weekend in the bleakest English countryside and find themselves on the run from the travelling clan in the deepest, darkest woods. Three scarper, but Dan stays behind to reason with the obviously disgruntled travellers. Bad idea. Whilst the others are involved in a cat-and-mouse chase, he’s tied up in the caravan with what they all assumed was the dead body of a woman. Needless to say, the trip doesn’t pan out with quite as much holiday cheer as the foursome expected. Sadly, TRAVELLERS isn’t as much gruesome fun as its plot outline suggests – although it does have its moments of grimly inspired action...

Read the rest here