30 May 2011

Dark Eye Archive: Harmony gets his freak on for JULIEN DONKEY-BOY (1999)

Another post in this semi-regular series of randomly selected posts on older films (some quite old, some very old, some not that old) that I've written about previously elsewhere, or had sitting dormant in the 'unfinished' pile, but have added further/new thoughts on for the sake of reproducing them here. (In some cases some much-needed judicious editing has occurred, too.) I've called it Dark Eye Archive because it sounds about right - and it was marginally better than the pun-happy Archive Socket.

Harmony Korine is a funny guy. Funny peculiar and, to a lesser degree, funny ha-ha: his all-round generally odd-meets-jovial demeanor forms a large part of his outsider(ish) pride in all things peripheral, subversive. His second film, Julien Donkey-Boy, picks up on similar themes and characters which drifted through his 1998 debut, Gummo, and his side projects, particularly his scattershot fiction-in-bite-sized-entries book, 'A Crack Up at the Race Riots'. Awkward outcasts, illogical actions and unvarnished (the best word for it) camerawork - courtesy of the Dogme95 manifesto lent to Korine by von Trier and co. for this project - hemmed within often largely unseen and under-explored American environs are what he does best. It’s what he does full stop.

Korine’s characters always appear as if the given actor portraying them is channelling first a psychiatric patient, then a Vaudeville act. It’s most likely the effect of Korine’s particular instruction; his directorial style seems to be eternally inspired by, alternately, Charles Manson and Baby Jane Hudson. Beacons flash around the film suggesting that it's all simply a laugh riot, suggesting these misfit-types are ripe for ridicule – either by Korine himself, playfully and lovingly, or a particularly impatient or unforgiving audience, unsparingly – but the folks on show aren't treated like token freaks at any point; Korine appears to be firmly reiterating in the back of his mind Tod Browning’s Freaks gang's chant, “One of us! One of us!” Korine revels in their world too adoringly, too immersively for lazy mockery. By association or sheer indulgence he’s part of that world. He looks to his characters for ways to answer questions the world throws at him.

The family are shown with both tenderness and harshness – but they're always absurd. Illuminating tidbits arise almost spontaneously (a sign of the Dogme95 restrictions/freedoms working well?). Little ragged truths emerge in the briefest of moments and in the merest of details: a held glance, an instance of silent contemplation, or a cut-away to a part of the family's house, either to identify them in their surroundings or, perhaps, for no particular reason other than pure aesthetic value. But some things simply work; and other things seem outlandish for the sake of it. Maybe Korine felt that he needed to heighten the 'strange' quotient at opportune moments, for fear of not being regarded as subversive enough: Werner Herzog in a gas-mask, the younger brother's constant training up and down the stairway, the surreal party balloon acts and so on. Although these things, if taken as flip directorial tics, can feel like jarring immaterial flourishes, they also create a sense of imaginative yet filthy whimsy that nicely offsets other, more mundane moments elsewhere in the film.

There's one scene in particular, where Korine's raggedy filmmaking showmanship comes into its own; it's a moment when the absurd and the heartfelt collide. Ewen Bremner, as Julien, and Chloe Sevigny, as his sister Pearl, are having a telephone conversation in different rooms within the same house. Julien (possibly feigning insanity, probably believing in miracles) thinks that Pearl is actually their mother calling him from beyond the grave. Pearl plays along to placate him. It’s an emotionally cruel, but ultimately thoughtful, privately sweet-natured act on Pearl’s behalf. However the scene is intended, the strange blend of cringe-worthy desperation and tender affection on display is curiously memorable. These characters (thanks to unguarded, lopsided work from Bremner and Sevigny) appear to mean every baffling, aching word. Who knows what bizarre truths hide in the cracked hearts of other people?

Photos are from www.harmony-korine.com

29 May 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Catherine Keener

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 Catherine Keener in Being John Malkovich, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Please Give.

Take One: Being John Malkovich (1999)

Do you think it’s possible to admire an actress’ immense talent yet still be somewhat immune to her overall allure or effectiveness? Or perhaps it’s fair to acknowledge their greatness, but have issues with many of their performances? It’s been this way with me and Cathy K for eleven years. It was very likely Being John Malkovich that kick-started my general viewer/star incompatibility with Keener. I did, however, enjoy her sarcastically dry, bolshy, personality-destroying task master Maxine Lund in Spike Jonze’s breakthrough film a great deal. But in the film – and in many things since – she’s baffled, transfixed, annoyed and intrigued me in equal measure. Watching one of her films is a tug-of-war filled with both appreciation and irritation...

Read the rest here

23 May 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Danny Glover

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 Danny Glover in Be Kind Rewind, Lethal Weapon and To Sleep with Anger.

Take One: Be Kind Rewind (2008) The most recent role in which he’s perhaps been most memorable was as the ageing, single, Fats Waller-loving video-shop owner Mr. Fletcher in Michel Gondry’s 2008 comic throwback Be Kind Rewind. He starts out like a kind of reluctant, but good-hearted curmudgeon unwilling to embrace DVD, but he ends up an accidental impresario of both old-school values and new ventures by joining the ranks of the neighbourhood “sweders” to make a community doc on Fats Waller. He typifies both the film’s antiquated side (VHS), but also its embracing of new technologies (DVD, digital) and social connection (people + cinema = growth). The scenes of him trotting off to memorialise Fats and snoop on his rivals would make an endearing film of its own. If Danny Glover could “swede” a film of himself doing just that, I’d be happy...

Read the rest here

19 May 2011

Dark Eye Archive: THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND (2003)

This is the first in a quite likely semi-regular series of randomly selected posts on older films (some quite old, some very old, some not that old) that I've written about previously elsewhere, or had sitting dormant in the 'unfinished review bank', but have added further/new thoughts on for the sake of reproducing them here. (In some cases some much-needed judicious editing has occurred, too.) I've called it Dark Eye Archive because it sounds about right - and it was marginally better than the pun-happy Archive Socket.

The weathered world in which the events of Matthew Ryan Hoge's  The United States of Leland take place is completely airless, hermetic. Every character uselessly ponders their own and others’ actions without the barest morsel of insight. The plot has teen Leland (Ryan Gosling) accused of murdering an autistic boy, so goes to juvenile detention; the reasons for the crime make up the bulk of the resulting narrative. It’s very much a film that dictates its characters blithely blunder into one another’s lives (but without significant reason to), and then feels content that they’re operating according to some kind of lived experience. It’s a depressive’s wish-fulfilment job – a film to gloomily wallow in. The kind of despondently-toned, ensemble drama all about (sub)urban angst and familial alienation were particularly rife in‘00s indie cinema. Some, in whole or in part, made a virtue out of grief control (Magnolia, Pieces of April, The Ice Storm); some induced a state of cheerless near somnambulism (The Safety of Objects, Garden State, The Chumscrubber). It’s a film that floats or sinks on the assembled cast’s successful transference of emotion. by that line of thought, The United States of Leland is the Bismarck.

Gosling, as Leland (giving his worst performance to date), is all puppy-eyes within hangdog expressions and inane mumbling. He aims for Holden Caulfield-style loner broodiness, but doesn’t even reach Donnie Darko moodiness; he conveys no such inner torment; Leland has the depth of a puddle. His performance is proof that great actors often require lesser transitional roles in which to practice their craft. The rest of the cast, bar two performers (Sherilyn Fenn, who in mere minutes of screen time inhabits a thinly-written and thanklessly peripheral character with subtlety; and Don Cheadle, who injects some much-needed sturdy compassion into his role), are given very little to do apart from vacantly react to each other in glacially fractured ways that almost always seem to be depicted in films such as this. Martin Donovan, Ann Magnuson, Kerry Washington, Chris Klein and Jena Malone are mostly wasted and Michelle Williams and Lena Olin have literally nothing to do. It’s also worth noting that Kevin Spacey (who produced) gave himself a crucial role. There's an air of awe that surrounds his character (Leland's father) but with little concrete reason; where he intends lofty stature, there is merely empty superiority.

Most of the characters act in such vapid and gutlessly unconvincing ways that the film oftens baffles when it should be holding our attention. Since when has complete inaction and dormant pondering qualified as proficient characterisation? Sometimes it takes a little bit more gumption, outwardly expressive emotion and, yes, believable effort to make a resounding impact: ‘Debilitative’ isn’t an acting style. Leland’s violent outburst, which bookends the narrative, is in no way the act of good-hearted selflessness that the film posits. It's a vacuous, selfish deed with no valid raison d’être (especially when you take into account exactly what was at stake). It’s the film's ending, though, which really reveals it to be a shallow exercise in manipulative storytelling. *SPOILERS* So, poor little Leland had to kill Becky (Malone) and Julie's (Williams) "retarded" brother Ryan (Michael Welch) because he ‘understood his sadness’? He thinks that a life of disability and difference isn't worth living? Ok. Right. But, doesn't his very act deprive Ryan of the chance to discover, for himself, otherwise? The film ultimately subscribes to a vastly flawed and hollow agenda, one that Hoge and co. were unfortunately hanging all their narrative's hopes on. *END SPOILERS* It ends as a monotonous, whimsically-played “life-affirming” drama with an inflated sense of self-importance and a waste basket full of misjudged liberalisms that it doesn't understand. There's nothing integral in the way of ideas about what it means to be a person who actually, in and of this world, truly gives a shit. It’s a terrifically bland exercise in faux emotionalism that depreciates as it plays. It has no real sense of the kind of human tragedy that it so willingly, yet fraudulently, wears on its sleeve.

17 May 2011

Quiz Zabriskie

Today is Grace Zabriskie's 70th birthday. Many happy returns to one of the best actresses working today. Below are 12 memorable Zabriskie characters from some of the films over her career so far...

...Can anyone name all 12 films?

16 May 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Barbara Hershey

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 Barbara Hershey in Beaches, The Entity and Black Swan.

Barbara Hershey as pushy stage mother Erica Sayers in Black Swan (2010)

Take Three: Black Swan (2010) Hershey was entirely perfect casting in Black Swan. She’s the right age, has the exact look befitting an unusual ballet-horror movie, is seasoned enough to convey the exact tone of her character (Erica Sayers, pushy stage mother and ex-ballet star – I wouldn’t mention the term ‘has-been’ around her) and fits well within the overall dark timber of the piece. She inhabits the role with requisite poise and gives great face, either swelled with fury, sincerity or girlish glee. To say she lived vicariously through onscreen daughter Nina (Natalie Portman) is pointing out the obvious. It’s a given that Erica is clearly not living better through displaced ballet from the off; the queasy, mechanical dependency she displays for Portman’s successes, hidden behind the dimmed light of motherly tenderness, gives Black Swan a lot of its freakish charm. The technical aspects go a long way in creating an aura of unease, but Hershey is the living embodiment of all the on screen fear that really terrorises...

Read the rest here

14 May 2011

At the Cinema: Priest

Priest (Scott Stewart/2011) USA/87mins. **

Priest fits in line with the likes of Underworld and Daybreakers – highly flashy, derivative entertainments which take vampire mythology and faddishly remodel it to fit multiplex expectations. In limp, uninvolving 3D it skips anything that might arouse intrigue or create tension (elements partially present in the above films) and just vaguely flings at us the necessary bits only; we get high concepts with low impact. To paraphrase Tom Waits: it’s got the bread, but not the butter. It’s a vampire clips package that feels cribbed from a better film that, sadly, doesn’t exist. There’s back story to be gleaned from the pre-opening titles animation, graphic novel series it’s based on and various snippets of terse, explanatory dialogue, but that’s pretty much where it starts and ends.

The main thrust of the narrative – Bettany’s ostracised Priest goes rogue to track down a pack of vamps that have maimed his brother (True Blood’s undead resident Stephen Moyer), kidnapped his niece and made a mockery of his faith – is too thinly conveyed and insubstantial, to the detriment of audience involvement. Had the filmmakers shown the source material any real affection they might have felt compelled to flesh out some of the more interesting concerns lurking on the periphery and incorporated them into the action. (Just how does the largely absent vampire queen command her army of eyeless blood-sucking beasts? What about the baffling, nagging mystery in Priest’s family background?) At only 87 minutes there’s limited time to get across anything other than the bare essentials. Its very hastiness suggests a studio squarely aiming for fast cash over myth- or franchise-making longevity.

Director Scott Stewart likes his compositions symmetrical and neat, as if he’s taking visual cues from the cross itself. He arranges most onscreen elements with bland preciseness, be they a uniform gathering of religious elders, four equally-spaced monolithic statues or the dominant locations (a vampire’s hive, the horizon line of a desert landscape). Whether it’s intended to enforce the notion that this bleak, unforgiving and largely anonymous world operates under a higher power (God is order!), or if it’s merely Stewart’s rote, uninspired approach to direction is open to interpretation. But the flat-pack visuals, with their overused trendy slow-motion build up (a device that’s becoming commonplace in cheap-thrill adaptations such as this – does every back flip require such close scrutiny?) collapse more than they hold up. Stewart delivers just shy of what is required to make it diverting.

The assembled cast is like a roll-call in genre heaven. Bettany growls like he’s aping Christian Bale’s Batman, but he copes just as well with being the designated lunatic figurehead as he did in his last cheap religi-tainment with Stewart, Legion. Good eggs Cam Gigandet (as a sheriff) and Karl Urban (as a fallen priest/vampire-human hybrid) plug away with rugged pluck in sidelined roles; and Brad Dourif and Christopher Plummer (seemingly playing the high priest of haughtiness), though both sadly underused, gamely provide good role play, as they both, thankfully, always do. But I’d offer up the suggestion that if you are to have Maggie Q in your film it’s advisable to give her at least 50% more martial arts action than is regulation. In a film with much good (genre) intentions but such vapid padding, the good stuff needs to be highlighted wherever possible.

8 May 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Eddie Marsan

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 Eddie Marsan in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Heartless and Happy-Go-Lucky.

Martin Compston and Eddie Marsan (right) in The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Take One: The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2010) Marsan is elusive and perplexing as ex-con and current kidnapper Vic in J Blakeson’s British thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed. It may be his best role to date. It’s certainly his most visible in terms of screen time and lasting impressions. Vic and Danny (Martin Compston) kidnap a girl called Alice (Gemma Arterton). We’re not initially certain why or what for, but surprising details emerge. It’s an intriguing, slow-burning three-hander, largely set in two rooms of one house, with a slippery plot that gets drip-fed to us with unsettling incremental unease. There’s a psychological and dramatic weight to Vic that Marsan smartly unearths. He utilises his familiar best attributes to expert effect, but twists them into something else. Vic spends much of the film in a desperate state. He gives orders to “assistant” Danny and threatens Alice. He’s in charge, but of what exactly is open to debate. But Marsan's expressive, layered acting style never lets caricature or over-indulgence creep in. Any more information will ruin the risk of ruining Alice Creed’s many wily turns; just know that both the film and Marsan are excellent.

Read the rest here

5 May 2011

At the Cinema: A Screaming Man

A Screaming Man / Un homme qui crie (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun/2010) Chad, Belgium, France/92mins ****

I much admired Chad filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's 2007 feature Daratt/Dry Season. (It took the no.4 spot in my year-end list that year.) He’s triumphed again with his fourth feature, A Screaming Man. Made in the same refined and frank vein as Daratt, this new film follows Adam (Youssouf Djaoro), a pool cleaner and former swimming champion who works at an exclusive N'Djamena hotel with the assistance of his son, Abdel (Diouc Koma). After a job reshuffle Adam loses his job to Abdel; he sinks into a depression, fuelled by anger and humiliation, and takes unexpected action; a questionable decision that threatens his family's personal stability just as the country's situation worsens when civil war breaks out and rebel armies infiltrate the area.

Much of the film’s drama is underplayed. Haroun’s camera focuses on Adam in a curious, contemplative manner, observing with deftness the way his livelihood and pride is slowly and slyly wrenched from him. Events major and minor are directed with crisp elegance, ensuring the plot never strays into falsity despite the tinge of melodrama inherent in it. One crucial shot, detailing a troubling decision Adam makes halfway in, tells us everything we need to know in a single, slow zoom into Adam’s face as he silently wallows in his demotion. Work is life for him; his job a necessity and cherished position, however lowly, which still holds for him the shine of his former swimming glories.

Djaoro (who also gave a fine performance as the baker in Daratt) conveys regret and selfishness with natural ease. The film and the camera tracks him with generosity and guile. That we care about him despite his permanently-furrowed demeanour and questionable ethics comes down to his strong performance. Music is used sparingly, and feels loaded with sombre emotion when it cuts in; it disrupts key moments unexpectedly to underline pertinent visual points. Laurent Brunet's vivid photography boldly highlights areas of respite within dim home interiors as much as it luxuriates in the expansive splendour of the hotel poolside. It's photography that visually arouses a lot emotionally with seemingly little effort. A Screaming Man details stunted, withheld lives – affected by social pressures and a fraught political climate – with a simple yet devastating awareness of the fragility of responsibility. It's another great work from a compelling filmmaker who's carving out an individual presence in world cinema.

2 May 2011

Take Three @ TFE: Brooke Smith

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 Brooke Smith in Series 7: The Contenders, Melinda and Melinda and The Silence of the Lambs.

Brooke Smith in Series 7: The Contenders

Take One: Series 7: The Contenders (2001) Smith's performance as Dawn “Bloody mama” Lagarto in Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders is a goldmine of maternal aggression. Dawn is a risk-taking, self-serving, take-no-prisoners single pregnant woman with a gun and a hit list of new Contenders to wipe out. It's as far from life-affirming as it gets making Dawn the kind of caustically fantastic role that most A-list actresses would give their right arm... to steer clear of. Thank the gods of indie cinema that they gave us Brooke Smith, then. We first see her enter a convenience store to shoot an old guy in the back. “You got any bean dip?” she asks the cashier. The humour is black and she dishes it dry. In one of the film’s sickest/funniest TV-montage parodies we see Dawn slit someone’s throat in a lift, kick a guy downstairs, drown someone else in a toilet and strangle a woman in a car à la Halloween’s Michael Myers, all whilst with a bun in the oven. This is not a rom-com...

Read the rest here