28 April 2011

Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman/2010)

Frederick Wiseman is as much a film artist as any fiction filmmaker. He's often quite rightly held up as such alongside many a fellow documentarian (Errol Morris, the Maysles bros for instance), especially for his no talking heads, no descriptive onscreen captions and - most pertinently - his judicious approach. As ever, his mastery of the form is present and apparent in his latest, Boxing Gym. The titular business in Austin, Texas is the focus of Wiseman’s measured gaze: its owner, Richard Lord, and various members (including lawyers, students, young mothers, doctors, soldiers) train, chat and generally box happily away whenever their often busy lives permit. All the while Wiseman, with acutely signature visual dexterity, captures key moments and exchanges - which reach far beyond mere commentary on the activity at hand - that reveal insights into the issues facing the gym members in a typically unintrusive, exploratory manner.

The aural rhythms of the gym are particularly notable for the extraordinary impression they arouse: the sound of rapid punches to speed bags, the constant buzz from the training timer, the white noise of friendly banter in the background and the bustle of lives lived as a series of light, breathy or grunted movements all commingle into an vividly energetic soundtrack. It’s a visually arresting film, too: light falling on the gym floor, frenetic, dance-like close-ups of nimble-footed boxers and still shots of the city in bright daylight all display Wiseman’s skill with crisp, easeful compositions. (It's remarkable, and revealing of his organic immersion in his subject matter, that Wiseman chose two projects in sequence - this and La Danse: The Paris Ballet Opera - that find strong visual form in elegant footwork.)

Of course, the telling snapshots of individual gym members resonate most, right from the start. I was immediately interested in each person’s lives, the fleeting ins and outs of their daily grind, within and away from the gym, and the collective effect all the members made on me in rotation. It's a portrait of defence and exercise within the confines of a specific microcosm and it paints a vibrant picture. These are all fascinating individuals. As ever with Wiseman, I could’ve happily spent many more hours with them. One image, briefly included late in the film, stands out: a boxer practising in the gym car park near a huge tree looming over him, swaying in the breeze; man and nature, the grand and the everyday, captured together, with zero fuss.

Boxing Gym and La Danse: The Paris Ballet Opera both featured in my Top Ten Films of 2010.

25 April 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Jérémie Renier

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 Jérémie Renier.

Yannick Renier (left) with this week's Take Three actor, Jérémie Renier (right) in Private Property/Nue propriété

Take One: Private Property/Nue propriété (2006) Joachim Lafosse’s beautifully-crafted French family drama Private Property, starred arthouse doyenne Isabelle Huppert alongside Renier and his brother Yannick (also an actor). They're just about getting on in a country house that non-identical twins Thierry (Jérémie) and François (Yannick) don’t want to sell, but Mater Dearest does; the live-away father/ex-husband backs the twins – and it’s his house. The drama is all about the to and fro of this looming possibility, the elephant smack bang in the front room and pregnant with the biggest pause imaginable. Lafosse curiously shapes his narrative with inharmonious tension between the three: it’s sometimes sexual, sometimes queasily thick, and most times unavoidable. Freud would’ve loved a visit with this Gallic clan...

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21 April 2011

Notes on Jonas Mekas' Mini Circus

I like my circuses fast, heady and full of colour. It’s how they should be. The experience should be exciting. It should draw you us and spit us out exhausted and full of bold and bizarre images. This is, by filmic proxy, exactly what Jonas Mekas’ personal, ambitious and downright groovy three-hour 1969 film essay Notes, Sketches and Diaries (AKA Walden) does. In it there’s a section – Reel 2, or, more precisely, the first 12 mins of Reel 2 (the film is made up of six half-hour “reels”) – called ‘Notes on the Circus’. It comes at us very fast. As film representations of the circus experience go, this one’s a gift. It features some of my favourite movie imagery of the circus outside of the moving scenes of John Merrick in David Lynch's masterful The Elephant Man, Candace Hilligoss wondering dazed and confused around a pier of horrors in Carnival of Souls and Bill Murray and Geena Davis holding up a bank in Quick Change. Ok, so that last one has a rather tenuous circus link – but they are dressed as clowns.

But back to Mekas. In twelve of his super-fast, super-duper, super 16mm minutes (itself split into four numbered sections) there’s enough heart-stopping big top bop to last an entire film’s worth of treasured memories. He fires at us: rapidly running ringleaders, Unicyclists in blue costumes, unicyclists in red costumes, a dog scampering up a ladder, people darting through flaming hoops, trapeze artists swinging frenetically to and fro like sped-up human pendulums, acrobats spinning in quick succession, showgirls, horses, horsey showgirls (maybe even showy horse-girls for that matter - it's all so fast), lions and tigers, tigers riding horses (this bit of organic animal magic is wondrous), towers of people rising up and coming down, elephants circling the tent, and much more. Everyone and everything circles, spins, turns in this assault of the reel. It all comes at us in an abstracted, sequined swill of animals and bodies, pizzazz and performance. And in full-on flickering colour. It’s a carnivalesque art film segment containing all the glitter and uplift of a day and night at the circus for real. And all whilst music that sounds like a Bob Dylan protest song being played by a drunken clown on a mouth organ artfully attacks our ear sockets. Ah Jonas, you make me skip away from a screening with keen wonder. You should direct every circus-related film. You should direct every circus. I'd be there super fast.

17 April 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Shelley Duvall

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 Shelley Duvall.

Take One: 3 Women (1977) There aren’t very many characters like Millie Lammoreaux in the movies. Watching Robert Altman’s 1977 masterpiece 3 Women you can see why. Essentially there are two reasons: she’s a hard sell, commercially speaking, and Duvall has played her perfectly well here already; there’s no need for an imitation version from anyone else. Duvall made Millie so singularly and categorically her own. It’s her signature performance; the centrepiece on her C.V. As per the title, she shares the film with two other women: Sissy Spacek, as her new roommate and care-home co-worker Pinky Rose, and Janice Rule as Willie Hart, a local (to Millie’s apartment complex, the Purple Sage, where much of the film takes place) artist – the one who paints the mysterious swimming pool mural which seems so significant to these 3 Women, and (metaphorically?) permeates it with an uncommon atmosphere...

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10 April 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Burgess Meredith

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 Burgess Meredith.

Take One: The Sentinel (1977) Watching Michael Winner’s high-pitched horror The Sentinel has two great side effects: one, you get some great ‘70s New York apartment porn (with the bonus of having Ava Gardner as your guide); two, you’re treated to one of Meredith’s most under seen and relishable performances. It came a year after his Supporting Actor Oscar nod for his signature role as Mickey in Rocky. He plays Cristina Raines favourite new neighbour Charles Chazen, a dotty, slightly effete, amiable and – oh yeah – imaginary elderly resident in the suspiciously cheap waterside Brooklyn Brownstone. He lives happily with his parakeet, Mortimer (also imaginary), his cat Jezebel (the meows sound real), and a blind priest sentry guarding the apartment block from all the demons of hell. So, yes: he leads a simple, gentle life...

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4 April 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Isabella Rossellini

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 Isabella Rossellini.

Take One: Blue Velvet (1986) “She... Wore... Bluuuuuue Vel-vet.” Indeed she did: bluer than velvet was the night. Ladies and gentlemen, Rossellini was the Blue Lady, Miss Dorothy Vallens, in David Lynch’s mid-eighties masterpiece Blue Velvet. Vallens was a tortured torch singer, a gas-guzzling freakopath Frank Booth’s (Dennis Hopper) late-night inviter and pervy amateur detective Jeffrey Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan) sexual initiation vixen. And yet, behind it all, lay a fretful wife and mother. Rossellini’s introductory scene in the film showed her as a midnight siren, a depressed blue dahlia who, once done with her sad, strange rendition of Bobby Vinton’s titular song, seems to dematerialise into a pair of Lynch’s signature red curtains...

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3 April 2011

Happy Mother's Day (of Horror)

Happy Mother's Day to all the world's mothers, either real or fictional.

Pamela Voorhees (the wonderful Betsy Palmer) and "loving son" Jason 
(possibly Kane Hodder?) share a maternal moment on the set of one of the Friday the 13th films.

2 April 2011

Book Review: The Last Werewolf (FrightFest)

A brief note today to say that the latest issue of horror website FrightFest's eMagazine has my review for Glen Duncan's latest horror novel, The Last Werewolf in it. 

"Jacob Marlowe, the titular last werewolf, is a lonely lycanthrope stranded in a world of unforgiving humans. He's haunted by memories of his first crime and a desire to end his life. But a savage killing, a new acquaintance and run-in with a secretive cult may well alter his path..."

Click the following link and flip to page 68 to read the rest... FrightFest eMagazine