29 December 2012

Best Female Performances 2012

Here are the 10 selections (plus another 10 honourable mentions) that make up what I thought were the very best female performances of 2012.

Marion Cotillard  
Rust and Bone 

For: damn well breaking my heart in a multitude of new places, and in innumerable ways. Everything about Stéphanie – every glance, smile and, particularly, arm movement (man, that balcony scene...) – was conveyed with effortless emotion and exemplary skill. Cotillard was spellbinding here. A rich, rewarding performance that will stay with me for a very long time.

Cécile De France  
The Kid with a Bike 

For: the simple, subtle ways in which she made unshowy, deeply felt warmth and decency a grounded and inherent virtue. De France's hairdresser Samantha was one of the best, fascinating and most giving characters of the year. In terms of sheer, fuss-free human commitment, she shone bright in a singular fashion. And the way her face beamed...

Charlize Theron  
Young Adult

For: daring to play such a complicated and hard to like bitch of, equally, confounding and compelling proportions. Mavis was a fascinating creature who earned genuine sympathy. This is a true one-off performance: she's someone who we rarely get to see on screen. A clever, precise piece of acting. Theron’s best performance to date.

Nadezhda Markina  

For: keeping a cast-iron poker face throughout the pain-ridden, desperate entirety of Zvyagintsev’s masterful film. And for carefully letting us in on the intimate workings of Elena's actions and troubled psyche. Markina displayed such exquisite poise and pensiveness as to be almost like a statue made flesh. She's a housewife in a Hitchcockian quandry.

Greta Gerwig  
Damsels in Distress

For: her “tailspin”, her Sambola, her dishing out of doughnuts, her politely flippant turn of phrase in every scene, her suicide prevention techniques, her good-natured side that masks a humorous spikiness, her adroit way with making Whit Stillman’s words sing, and zing. This is Gerwig's best role so far.

Emmanuelle Riva  

For: making stillness feel integral in a fragile display of suffering that never once resorts to a needless simplicity. Riva is a one-woman futile barrier against inevitable defeat. Her performance was quietly, integrally heartbreaking – even terrifying in a vast and utterly human way. It's her face, lost in her husband's hands, that I remember most about Amour.

Elizabeth Olsen  
Martha Marcy May Marlene

For: arriving out of nowhere, pretty much, and creating a deft balance of mystery and mania with both grand and minute subtle shifts in personality. Martha, Marcy May, Marlene? Whoever this girl is – and we’re better off being left in the psychological fog – Olsen made sure she was evasive and confounding enough to vividly hold our attention.

Kate Winslet  

For: her spot-on manic fluster in playing a woman so backed-up with forced social niceties that her outburts teeter on the cusp of absurdity. Winslet flirts with farce, but never lets the icy precision of this embittered, well-heeled class obsessive free of her grasp. She's spiky, vomitous, brilliant. The flower throwing was a great bonus.

Yeo-jeong Yoon  
The Housemaid

For: being the slyly magnetic force – in a film full of untrustworthy and alluring figures – that makes The Housemaid tick. Yoon shows older housemaid Byung-sik’s years of experience and inner workings without so much as a flicker of hesitation. She's the key figure here, and the film's secret weapon.

Aggeliki Papoulia  

For: the way she kept back everything intrinsic about the performance, but let tiny slivers of disturbing unbalance creep incrementally through until... the Alps "act" broke spectacularly down. A feat of withholding that results in a fractured whirl of pitiful sadness.

11-20, or Honourable Mentions:

Noomi Rapace Prometheus / Gina Gershon Killer Joe / Deannie Ip A Simple Life / Julie Sokolowski Hadewijch / Nina Hoss Barbara / Ari Graynor For a Good Time, Call... / Hannah Herzsprung Hell / Anna Margaret Hollyman Small, Beautifully Moving Parts / Nicole Beharie Shame / Jemima Kirke Tiny Furniture

Next: male performances and best films of the year.

26 December 2012

Ten Worst (or, 'Not for Me, Thanks') 2012 Films – Plus 10 Disappointments

First, here's a brief list of 10 disappointments in 2012. Essentially, these are films that I thought might have had a chance of perhaps taking a higher spot in the films of the year, but ended up being less than the sum of their parts: A Useful Life, The Descendants, Vanishing on 7th Street, La Havre, Room 237, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Silver Linings Playbook, The Turin Horse, Like Crazy, The Loneliest Planet.

But here are 10 films which, let's say, didn't do much for me in 2012. I hesitate to say that these are the very worst of the year, as there were a great many films (mostly starring Adam Sandler) that I didn't get around to seeing that may very likely have made the list. But these films were the pits as far as I was concerned. But – however ropey, derivative or downright ill judged, in my view – all had at least one or two aspects that were somewhat memorable (here's to diplomacy!), hence the 'on the plus side' section at the end of each write-up. So, in no order:

Ethan Hawke in Sinister

Sinister, another in the current run of single-scary-word horrors (Insidious, Livid etc), was a creepy treat for a fair few people this year, but it did very little for me. The limp dialogue, am-dram arguments between the main leads and barrel-scraping jumps – not to mention the influx of SUDDENSCARENOISE every five minutes – made it a drab trudge. I did keep my eye on Ethan Hawke’s continuity-proof cardigan, however; he wore it in every scene as, I’m guessing, a guarantee that director Scott Derrickson could reedit scenes into any order as he saw fit. I wished he’d edited scenes into another order he saw fit. On the plus side: I enjoyed James Ransone’s turn as the local deputy.

The Iron Lady: did we really need this soft riot of ham-fisted prestige filmmaking? Who asked for another seasonal rotisserie award-grabber with acclaim on the brain and worthiness seeping out of every scene? This is a copper-plated dud that fills the same gap in the market as The King’s Speech, The Queen... The [Insert Significant Figure They Want Us to See in Another Light]. Streep’s performance as ‘middle’ Maggie was pure panto: all haughty grimace and dominant bouffant. I swear at one point director Phyllida Lloyd put her on castors and told someone to shove her toward the camera, Nosferatu-like. On the plus side: I quite liked Streep as old Thatcher. She was convincing, heartfelt and committed in these scenes.

Frank Hvam in Klown

I guess you can sort people into those that liked The Hangover movies and those that like cinema. Ditto Klown – an inept, wearisome retread of the kinds of ideas the Hangover films already explored over two laborious movies. Klown was heralded by some as an undervalued gem: I’d like to have words with these people. Like reduced goods well past their sell-by-date, it’s as unappealing as it is fit for the scrap heap. Nagging wives, gay panic, charmless forty-something blokes pestering girls for sex in a manner less “hilarious” and, frankly, more worrying. No thanks. On the plus side: I got to test out my new Best Ever Bored Face. (My old one tired itself out after watching the film at the bottom of this write-up earlier in the year.)

It seems Julie Delpy is following the portmanteau relay-romance films Paris, je t'aime (2006) and New York, I Love You (2009) with her own feature-length city-for-city segments: 2 Days in Paris (2007) and this year’s 2 Days in New York. The newer film certainly feels overlong, as if she’s stretching a point better made in a short film and indulgently laying it out across 96 dishevelled minutes. I was rather taken with Paris, but New York was awkwardly insular and lacking in the kind of joyful exuberance of its predecessor. The cast mugged desperately for comedy that I searched long and hard to find. The cheaply-made 2012 US indie Small, Beautifully Moving Parts shared some thematic similarities with Delpy’s film, but did everything with quiet charm and zero mess. It’s worth checking out over this smug farrago any day. On the plus side: Chris Rock cut a comically baffled path through the general smarm to be the film’s stand out.

Cocco (and red-faced friend) in Kotoko

In Kotoko director Shinya Tsukamoto succeeds in turning gory subversion into utter tedium. It’s a film filled with purposeless frenetic direction with a plot that grapples feebly with issues of mental illness. Its dreary illogic in this regard was unfortunate, especially when it had the ingredients (and directorial talent) to explore the subject with stark vigour, introspection and well-pitched humour. It required a surer touch, not self-conscious, heaped-on zaniness. Lead actress Cocco is in every scene and she's terrible – all blankness and wailing. She isn't directed as much as left to wallow. The whole thing felt like a clueless stab at reconfiguring Repulsion for a contemporary audience. On the plus side: Indeed, the best scene is a Science of Sleep-like cardboard-world-of-whimsy take on that Polanski film. However baffling that sounds.

What to extract when you're watching What to Expect When You’re Expecting? Eyes. Definitely the eyes. Kirk Jones’ faddish rom-com shows such an unreal world full of "perfect" types that it's almost science-fiction. Horrible, terrible science-fiction. The affluent characters seem to have issues with anything that doesn't handily slot into their narrow, idealised Utopian landscape of quirky, Stepford-like parenting duties. I certainly wouldn't want to meet any of these characters in a dark alley. Or in broad daylight. And certainly never on a screen ever again. It’s not only offensive to new parents, it's offensive to anyone currently alive. It’s contraception in celluloid form. On the plus side: being grateful that Matthew Morrison didn’t have a big role.

Project X received its fair share of hate since its release. And then some. Indeed, it’s a rotten affair, already well derided (so I won't add too much to the pot). It was a wearing, feebly unfunny and unentertaining audio-visual plod. It so desperately wanted to be 2012's black sheep: look how unruly – how bad – I am, it seemed to shout. I didn't realise how mirthless, anchored to convention and keen to be, like, cool, man it wanted to be. It rumbles on futilely beating its chest, trying to ceaselessly shock. But it fails to be truly risky, offensive or gross. It's ultimately too weak minded. Divine ate real dog shit on film 44 years ago; it still hasn’t been topped. Take note Todd Phillips, Nima Nourizadeh and pals. On the plus side: the reviews for it, both pro and con, made for fascinating and/or hilarious reading.

Michael Fassbender in Shame

Shame So, it’s all classy, warmly lit restaurants for Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) numerous sophisticated hetero hook-ups, and SEEDY, DEVIL-RED, NIGHTMARE CLUB-BACKROOM ENCOUNTERS for a desperate, last-ditch homo jaunt, is it? Lovely. As if I needed another reason to roll my eyes at this blank, corporate NY dullard’s self-regarding sex travels. Between watching Fassbender jog off a hard-on and indulging in artfully over-directed and grim-faced coitus of the most awkward kind – and then seeing him staring mournfully into the Hudson in a moment of clichéd facileness – I was perplexed as to Shame’s appeal. There may be no (deliberate) connection to Brandon found here, but that didn't have to mean vapidity was the answer. The Last Seduction’s Wendy Kroy (Linda Fiorentino) would have had Brandon for breakfast. On the plus side: that dinner scene with Nicole Beharie. Or just Nicole Beharie’s role in general. Also, Fassbender’s warped reflection in a subway train window was an indelible image and an example of DoP Sean Bobbitt’s deft eye for photographing surfaces with sublime fluency.

Northeast made for an entirely apt companion piece to Shame. So much so that I thought including both here might simply cancel each film out. But, despite similarities (bored/dull guy mopes from one sexual conquest to the next around NY), Northeast deserves mention for its sheer singularly vacuous nature. There’s so much posing, but so little to care about. One self-pitying "dude" listlessly lives, loves... meanders. For 76 crushingly tedious minutes. And without any competent characterisation – in what is essentially a character study. I needed minute-by-minute reminders of why was I supposed to care about this characterless man. Not a good thing. On the plus side: the balance between handheld tracking shots on the NY streets and the often delicate stillness of the interior scenes was nicely accomplished.

Lastly, I won’t waste much of my time or yours on The Dictator: it’s an exercise in seeing if one laugh* can be extracted from the meat of anybody’s funny bone, and be sustained across 83 minutes. *I say ‘laugh’. I mean smirk. On the plus side: I’m always willing to watch Anna Faris in any film. Any film.

10 dishonourable mentions: Dark Tide, Venus in the Garden, The Divide, Entrance, Mother and Child, The Five-Year Engagement, A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, Uncle Kent, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Columbus Circle.

Next up, the brighter side: 10 best films of 2012 and male and female performances.

24 October 2012

A Shark in the Edit Suite: Jaws (1975) for TFE's 'Oscar Horrors' Series

Just in time for Hallowe'en, here's a piece I wrote on Verna Fields' award-winning editing on Jaws for The Film Experience's 'Oscar Horrors' series.

Spielberg made it a star of fearful proportions. John Williams gave it an iconic theme tune. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw obsessively stalked it. And Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown looked on, clutching the purse strings, as they all went about their blockbusting business. But the person who gave Amity Island’s Great White unwanted visitor fierce presence and a sinister personality most could arguably be the editor Verna Fields. Alongside Spielberg and Co. she was instrumental in terrorizing the world with Jaws, summer 1975’s maiden blockbuster movie. She manoeuvred the shark’s arrival and departure – in tandem, of course, with Williams’ score – helping to create cinema’s scariest PG-rated, non-human villain...

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22 October 2012

LFF 2012: Lore (Cate Shortland/2012)

A last London Film Festival report. Here's a conversation with David from Victim of the Time on another LFF film. This one is on Cate Shortland's follow up to her 2004 debut Somersault, Lore.

David: A story about the children of Nazis struggling across a Germany occupied by Allied forces is several thousand miles away from what you’d imagine director Cate Shortland’s wheelhouse is. But Lore’s focus on the burgeoning sexuality and voyage to adulthood of a teenage girl is strikingly similar to Shortland’s debut Somersault - so much so that lead actress Saskia Rosendahl often reminded me of Abbie Cornish in her often abrupt movement and slightly displaced screen presence. That might be how I’d describe Lore itself - it never feels truly present or powerful. Instead it filters the story through meaningful objects and eerie poetic interludes, and while this is a method of storytelling I’m certainly not averse to, it didn’t work for me in this case...

 Read the rest here

18 October 2012

17 Brief Notes on a Rewatch of David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method (2011)

More than her ‘odd jutting chin’ it’s the jarring accent which is the dominant aspect of Knightley’s performance that knocks you out of whack. And time and place. Kudos for giving it a bash, Keira, but it needed a dash more refinement and a vat less fake-Russian guttural burp. However, for committed, contorted limb despair you're top of your game.

Viggo’s accent, on the other hand, is smoother on the ears. But if you swapped Viggo’s faux nose in this and Kidman’s pointed proboscis in The Hours I don’t think many people would be able to tell the difference.

Early scenes give Knightley a lot of rope to tie herself in knots with. She excitedly frays them in a curious yet irritating manner. (At least in the early scenes; her performance finds a baseline halfway through and she convinces with a great deal more subtlety thereafter).

The 'two-hander' scene in which Fassbender and Viggo both say "anal fixations" is beautifully blocked.

The evocation of the various interior spaces – the rooms, hallways and modes of transport that Jung, Freud and Spielrein occupied* – created by Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography was a chief joy. The environments are dense with an enclosing fug and embody the idea of people being hemmed in by imagined (or unseen) ill acts. The blend of muddy hues of greys, browns and greens suggests untreated bruising. *As in much Cronenberg’s work, the characters interact largely within interior environments.

“Never repress anything,” seems to be the overriding statement that A Dangerous Method makes. This one brief line from Cassel, who is essentially the film’s own id, its nudge-wink lascivious prompt, sums up the connection the film makes between the mind, the body and the way Cronenberg makes serious work of expressing it.

The cuts between scenes are often abrupt - albeit in an airy fashion – and smoothly woven together; they arrive oh-so-quietly and make time appear endlessly, bafflingly, fluid (even if the conversation of a given scene hasn’t been entirely resolved, suggesting an everlasting dialogue/narrative).

One particular shot from Fassbender’s boat slowly gliding toward Knightley waiting on a set of lakeside steps (the POV his, as the camera floats closer to Knightley), and then a leap to a mid shot of her looking pensive, is elegant in a subdued way. The following shot (a high angle looking down on both their characters as they sleep, entwined on their sides, in his boat) extends the pair’s connectedness. The moment is all the more compelling and affecting for being conveyed without words. Just a delicate piece by composer Howard Shore accompanies the moment.

For all of Cassel’s character’s (Otto Gross) sexual braggadocio the maid with half a boob out that he bonks against a ladder looks incredibly bored.

The verbal exchanges, mostly between Freud and Jung, are more often than not dry as old parchment. Did they never argue over their ideas? (No fiery debates on your subjects, lads?) For a film concerned with the loaded intensity of words, the passion of conversation is largely missing. (Surely F&J would’ve talked ceaselessly over one another, verbally tussled with wordy one-upmanship?)

The liberal arrangement of intricately placed objects (Jung’s equipment, Jung’s household tea things, statuettes/ornaments etc) was a cause for much fascination when the dialogue wasn’t.

Would a more formal experimentation have given the film more life and lift? Would a Tabu-style play with dialogue/silence, say, have made for some kind of gloriously odd yet invigorating disconnect between its ideas and visuals? What if it were completely relayed solely in v/o narration – with no two-way conversations whatsoever? (The issue of telling a story about two of the world’s foremost talkers/thinkers without them uttering a single word to one another might have made for a curiously, tantalisingly antagonistic experience.) Or, what about a three-way role switch, where Viggo, Fassbender and Knightley all alternately shared their respective parts?

The sex and/or spanking scenes between Fassbender and Knightley are shot via mirrors fixed on wardrobe doors. I think there might be a deeper psychological reason for this - though it's one that's slippery and hard-to-fathom. Vanity, reflection, ego, the male gaze... sex as surface desire that cloaks hidden meaning. Although, it could just be the kinky thrill of voyeuristic hanky-panky.

If there’s ever to be a remake of Daughters of Darkness on the cards, Sarah Gadon would make a fantastic Elizabeth Báthory.

The late scene with Knightley and Fassbender (where he stares out over the water as he recounts to her his apocalyptic dream) contains some of Fassbender’s most poignant and open-hearted acting yet. His crestfallen demeanour and wondrously resigned expressiveness was the single most astonishing thing about A Dangerous Method. More than his queasy seduction in Fish Tank and continual unquenchable forlornness in Shame, this moment stands as matchless MF…

… and his last line in this scene, expressed to a now-lost-to-him Spielrein, “My love for you was the most important thing in my life… sometimes you have to do something unforgiveable just to be able to go on living,” is delivered with impeccable emotional gravity. The clever sod nails unbearable heartbreak in one.

The film begins to run a rake over your heart just as it’s about the end.

14 October 2012

LFF 2012: Antiviral (Brandon Cronenberg/2012)

More London Film Festival reports. Here's a conversation I had with David (from Victim of the Time film blog) on Brandon Cronenberg's striking debut feature Antiviral, showing this week at the LFF.

Craig: It’s all about celebrity skin in Antiviral as characters indulge in, ahem, the pleasures of the flesh in one form or another. This being the first feature from David Cronenberg’s son Brandon, I perhaps expected a plentiful supply of gratuitous bodily harm. Having no idea prior to seeing the film just what it was about – all I knew was that it was partially set in a mysterious clinic for the stars – the film came as a minor revelation: not only because, for a debut feature, the filmmaking was of an uncommonly high calibre, but also because the most interesting Cronenberg film this year wasn’t brought to us by the oldest member of the clan...

Read the rest here

13 October 2012

LFF 2012 Review: Black Rock (Kate Aselton/2012)

Head over to The Film Experience for another review from the 56th BFI London Film Festival: Kate Aselton's survival drama Black Rock.

Lake Bell, Kate Aselton and Kate Bosworth in Black Rock

It’s certainly a bad day at Black Rock for Kate Bosworth and her two BFFs. Director/co-star Kate Aselton and Lake Bell both cherish Bosworth’s friendship  but they have their own shaky history festering between them like an open sore. The three women go for a ‘last hurrah’ camping trip to the titular retreat with treasure hunts and restorative bonding in mind. That’s until they chance upon a trio of ex-soldiers, not long back from Helmand Province, on a suspicious shooting trip...

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LFF 2012 Review: Blood (Nick Murphy/2012)

Head over to The Film Experience for my review of Nick Murphy's new police drama Blood, showing at the 56th BFI London Film Festival.

Paul Bettany in Blood

Nick Murphy’s Blood (showing in the festival’s "Thrill" strand) explores the secret cost of human damage on a small group of people in a north of England town. Bodies are invaded and battered; the red stuff is in plentiful supply. Cops, criminals and their families all reach the end of the tethers in this stern, cold police drama about the murder of a teenage girl and its aftermath. Police detective brothers played by Paul Bettany and Stephen Graham investigate the crime...

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24 September 2012

At the Cinema: Savages

Savages (Oliver Stone/131mins/USA)

Note: this review contains one or two plot spoilers

I'm pretty sure Savages is the result of Oliver Stone raiding Hollywood's ‘lost and found’ box. It's musty, soiled, fit for throwing, but enough of a grim lark to warrant the time spent rifling through its funky wares. It’s also an experience I wouldn’t want to repeat any time again soon. Stone grabs from all over the shop and delves deeply into the crime-saga bargain bin, but sadly his enfeebled grasp of thriller tropes has become a bit slack since Natural Born Killers, his 1994 film that Savages bears a passing resemblance to and strives to match in furious tone and ragged texture. Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch play a drug-dealing duo with a shared girlfriend, Blake Lively, who gets kidnapped by Salma Hayek’s Mexican crime baroness; they endeavour to get her back at any cost.

The story darts about, varying in tenor from scene to scene: some dully drag on with little impulse; others zip past with little time for the audience to notice that what Stone and his writers are imparting is conveyed with more complication than is necessary. Johnson and Kitsch make a dreary duo, despite their sun-ripened deportment. Neither one makes a strong enough impact as, respectively, a hippyish surfer and a hot-headed, er, well, psychopath. (It’s actually hard to fathom why these ill-suited guys would be best pals in the first place as no real arousal of their lives before this story is evoked and their relationship is solely conducted through chinging bottles together and some occasionally furrow-browed plot-shunting banter – although a brief throwaway exchange late in the film, curiously tinged with homoeroticism, is telling: “Have I ever said I love you, man?” Johnson utters. “Yeah, this morning,” replies Kitsch. When the girlfriend’s away, the boys will play?)

The supporting cast know their elbows, but not their arses. John Travolta’s (as a DEA agent) scenes have him verbally spout exposition that makes a frantic meal of the narrative; his character the most feels like a definite Tarantino influence. Benicio del Toro’s pervy, unwashed henchman seems to turn up to his scenes a full minute after his commanding moustache to intimidate his victims by eating their food and getting his cronies to do their gardening; he mostly reminded me of Steve Pemberton’s lecherous Greek landlord Pop from The League of Gentlemen. Emile Hirsch pops up in a pointless role as someone who sits at a computer and Shea Whigham cameos with a fair befuddled Bill Pullman impression as one of del Toro’s hits. Lively has the central role of O (named after Hamlet’s Ophelia; the famous painting seems to be hung on every cast member’s wall to boot) and is given the task of narrating the torrid tale with piffling but enjoyably corny diary-like platitudes. But unfortunately she’s essentially just a bargaining chip for everyone else to fight over more than an entirely rounded character. (An actress like Amber Heard would’ve put a feistier stamp on the role.) Best in show, though, is Salma Hayek, who, with little more than a wig and a frown, slinks through the film like a jewelled panther with a personal grudge.

There is indeed some fun to be had here, intentional or otherwise. Several scenes are certainly wearing and meandering, only included to push the story forward in rote fashion. For example, a seemingly tense briefcase drop-off outside an abandoned, seedy neon-lit building promises excitement yet actually delivers dullness: it’s just a commonplace briefcase drop; neither shootout nor fist-fight enters into it, sadly, therefore missing a perfect opportunity to liven things up. Other moments bring inadvertent joy. The video of Lively gagged and bound and strapped to a chair, which Hayek sends to the lead dud-duo’s desktop, includes a “fun” explanatory animation of just how Lively will be decapitated if she doesn’t get what she wants. It made me wonder where Hayek found the time – between evilly lounging on her bed and ordering her minions around – to get this torture-cartoon made. Did she employ an in-house animator to do it? This kind of mundane aside kept me entertained when the main thrust of the plot failed to. But, really, the two most compelling scenes feature Hayek and Lively: one a chat over Skype, the other a chinwag over dinner. These refreshingly curveball moments break through the din of style abuse to let some substance flourish; Hayek essays a tender maternal streak and Lively exhibits traits beyond rich and bratty. Both scenes are like mini pools of open emotion amid an ocean of blokish blather.

Although Savages never ripens into the fully-flushed, all-singing fiasco it teases to be, it does contain plenty of gratuitous daftness to keep the eyes happily rolling part-time. It’s never boring, despite some languorous stretches and a cheap final-scene rewind (which is little more than a cheeky and tedious way for Stone to embed an alternative ending alongside the given one instead of releasing it as a separate deleted DVD extra), and for the most part there’s enough sweaty momentum to shunt the whole thing along with requisite pluck. But it could have been a real mind-melter. Something for the cinematic sin bin we all like to scrape the bottom of once in every while. Stone could have gone for pure unadulterated thrills and made something even more OTT than NBK to prove he’s not only now fit for the kinds of debilitating dramas he’s recently been accustomed to churn out (like his dull W trilogy: World Trade Center, W., and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). Savages could have been Showgirls for the straight man if only it boiled at a higher temperature. But it repeatedly fizzles out and then thoughts of Smokin’ Aces enter the fray. Maybe Stone will go all-out balls-out with a crazier crime film next time around.

16 September 2012

Take Three: Series 3 Wrap-up @ TFE

Over at The Film Experience I've written up a quick wrap-up entry for the third and final run of my ‘Take Three’ column, the weekly series that looked at three notable performances from a supporting or character actor's career. (Click on the actors’ names for their respective Takes.)

It’s perhaps fitting that last week’s Take Three featured Brad Dourif as, when the idea for the series was first mooted, Dourif was the first actor who entered my mind. It’s odd perhaps that I left him so long, but I’m glad he was included in the end. I was also glad to include a quintet of actors – bigger names, well versed in veering between lead and character actor roles – who have vast and interesting careers under their belts: Christopher Walken (one of Seven Psychopaths due in cinemas soon), John Hurt, Tommy Lee Jones (currently sexing it up with Streep in Hope Springs), Danny DeVito and Chris Cooper. Series 3 started off with one of today’s best, Melissa Leo (receiving acclaim this week for her role as Francine); she was closely followed by another, Anne Heche...

Read the rest here

11 September 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Brad Dourif

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 Brad Dourif in a variety of roles including Wise Blood, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Child's Play films.

*Note this is the final Take Three in this third series (apart from a S3 wrap-up entry next week). For now, it's done. But perhaps maybe one day I'll resurrect it... maybe even in a different form*

Take One: Dourif & Auteurs

The sign of a great character actor can often be seen in the directors they work with. Of course not all will be universally lauded names (character actors don’t get to pick and choose like A-list stars), but when they repeatedly work with filmmakers of high regard you know there’s something special about them. Dourif has worked with some of the most visionary and celebrated directors working. The likes of Werner Herzog and David Lynch, whose off-kilter approach perfectly chimes with Dourif’s, have cast him time and again...

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5 September 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Samantha Morton

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 Samantha Morton in Under the Skin, Control and The Messenger.

Take One: Under the Skin (1997) After some acclaimed TV and short film work, Morton made her feature bow in Carine Adler’s Under the Skin. In it she plays Iris, a girl selfdestructing and suffering due to the death of her mother. In this blistering debut Morton flits between girlish abandon and hot-tempered wilfulness. At times the camera has trouble keeping up with her as she weaves through life picking up numerous sexual conquests in retaliation for not being able to confront her grief. Other times, the camera can’t seem to pull away from its close focus on Morton’s expressive face, as in the scene where she enters a church and tearfully gazes at the congregation...

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31 August 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Christopher Walken

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 Christopher Walken in True Romance, The Prophecy and The Deer Hunter.

Take One: True Romance (1993) One of Tony Scott’s best loved films was True Romance, based on Quentin Tarantino’s script. And one of its most fondly remembered supporting performances was Walken’s psychotic criminal Vincenzo Coccotti. His sole scene – the ‘Sicilian scene’ as it became dubbed – is often quoted for its spiky dialogue and playful yet intense interaction. In the scene Walken pays a visit to Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper) for information on the whereabouts of the latter’s son Clarence (Christian Slater). Worley knows that he’s going to die regardless of what he tells Coccotti, so he relates an offending story hoping to insult him as a last FU. For the most part Walken does seemingly very little; Hopper does most of the talking. But his responses, his turning to his henchmen for reactions and hardy yuck-yuck laugh add an amusingly unsettling tension...

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22 August 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Rosanna Arquette

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 Rosanna Arquette in Desperately Seeking Susan, After Hours and The Divide.

Takes One & Two: Desperately Seeking Susan and After Hours (both 1985) Rosanna Arquette was very much at home in Eighties New York. As Roberta Glass in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan and Marcy Franklin in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, she had some strange and bewildering night-time adventures. Her well-to-do New Jersey housewife in the former sought and stalked an elusive Madonna; in the latter she was a curious, oddball girl courted by a desperate Griffin Dunne. These two films were early high points in Arquette’s career and established her as one of the decade's most likeable character actresses.

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18 August 2012

Great '90s Performances: Anjelica Huston (The Grifters) & Tom Cruise (Magnolia)

Here are write-ups on two more performances from the 1990s for the blog 'performance showdown' at Encore's World of Film.

Anjelica Huston as Lilly Dillon in The Grifters 

Dressed in sharp blood-red or off-white suits, and with a tight peroxide perm that barely moves, Huston’s long-time matriarch of con Lilly Dillon trembles from adrenaline or nerves in Stephen Frears’ 1991 The Grifters. Huston is magnetic, ferocious and daring; it’s arguably her best and most complex performance. With an impersonal poise and rigid posture, Lilly enters The Grifters’ unforgiving world as a woman who’s constantly evading detection; her appearance pre-altered before the events of its narrative unfold. The cheap yet still glamorous get-up she wears is like a front for the crooks and a disguise for the cops. Lilly’s a mother in name, but not in nature. Her feelings for and about her son Roy (John Cusack), maternal or, particularly, otherwise leave a lot to be desired, shall we say? In the world of pulp-noir Lilly could be a direct descendant of Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat: both got burned by the men in their lives; both got their revenge. Only Lilly’s left with a survivor’s internal scars, deeper and more searing than the reminder on her hand. Watching Lilly ceaselessly stalk and fret her way from one tricky engagement to another – phone booth to hotel, racetrack to apartment – induces a nerve-shredding restlessness; her anxiety is infectious. Huston motors the movie and takes us along for the ride, turning us into unwilling accomplices. Huston successfully manages to transfer both Lilly’s minute mannerisms (twitchy chain-smoking, deceptively vacant glare, her “Los Ang Gleez”) and her grandest, fiercest altercations through a veil of life-eroding, nervy apprehension. It’s not a good idea to be caught up in Lilly’s world, but watching it unfurl from afar is a vicarious thrill. Huston’s tremendous performance ensures we’re right there anyway. She plays if it as if it were a soul-stripping game of poker.

Tom Cruise as Frank T. J. Mackey in Magnolia 

Tom Cruise may have searched and destroyed, and respected cocks and tamed cunts, until he was blue in the face in Magnolia, but four small words cruelly defined his “master of the muffin” Frank T.J. Mackey: I’m quietly judging you. Mid-film, in an interview with female reporter Gwenovier (April Grace), he plays up his role as a spoiled and infamous infotainment megastar to a tee. Gwenovier cuts deep with her questions regarding his elusive family situation. When she presses for a particularly tricky response, he sits silent for what feels like an age; then utters those four words. This comes after some playful yet tense interaction wherein Gwenovier, defiantly immune to his charms until this point, appears to crack; in coy fashion she mentions one of his (deliberately?) undone shirt buttons. Knowingly, like a hunter having ensnared his ‘prey’, he acknowledges her mention and teasingly buttons up. It’s a queasy scene, played perfectly by Cruise and Grace, and points to Mackey’s ability to be snakily duplicitous. Mackey is perhaps Cruise’s best screen creation to date: an arrogant and spite-filled showman spouting invective to all-male crowds on how to “make that lady ‘friend’ your sex-starved servant.” Cruise expresses every one of Frank’s manipulative actions with oily hubris. Early on in the film, when we first see him on stage, he’s lit in stark silhouette, his arms positioned in a robotically phallic stance; he immaturely presents himself to appear like an evangelistic man-god. But really he’s just a spoiled boy with daddy issues. That Cruise makes him intricately complex, troubled and, saddest of all, trapped in a self-imposed emotional coma, is concrete proof that he’s often more than capable to burrow well below his surface action-star persona to convey raging heartfelt depth in a performance.

Note: the Huston write-up has been edited and reworked for this post from the Take Three piece I did on her.

15 August 2012

Great '90s Performances: Julianne Moore (Safe) and Woody Harrelson (The People vs Larry Flynt)

Earlier this week I wrote about two performances from the 1990s for a blog 'performance showdown' at Encore's World of Film. Here are slightly longer versions of both write-ups.

Julianne Moore as Carol White in Safe

The most crucial aspect in conveying the neutral, sterile atmosphere of Todd Haynes’ Safe was having the right actress to play its figurehead, Carol White, a suburban Californian “homemaker” suffering from ‘20th Century Disease’, or, in other words, an allergy to just about every single thing in her life. Without the perfect Carol Safe wouldn’t have worked. It required an actress willing to give herself over completely to the role, to perfectly embody the film’s enigmatic tone. Julianne Moore innately understood that to show the effects of an elusive condition, a fear of the world that may indeed be psychosomatic, she needed to fade into the film, not overwhelm it. Moore is often filmed in extreme long shot, vulnerably positioned at the very edges of the film frame so that, at times, it’s hard to make out if she’s actually there at all. She became the blankest of surfaces and let the film enfold her, freezing her in place. She has no grandstanding moments in which to act showy; it’s not that kind of performance. But Moore took risks in her approach to the character. Full access to Carol isn’t easily granted through what she does. The familiar, archetypal housewife of movie tradition evaporates. By playing an indistinct protagonist Moore dares us to distance ourselves from Carol by remaining largely inert, quietly battling her environment at the extremities of the screen. What she gives us of this unfortunate woman is a timid presence, a blur; we have to look hard to find the person right in front of us. Carol, pinned in position in her living room, in her car, in public and in her own mind, remains an unidentifiable figure. Moore inherently ‘got’ Safe. She understood Carol from the outside in. And in the process gave one of the best film performances of the last twenty years.

Woody Harrelson as Larry Flynt in The People vs Larry Flynt

More so than as a Boston bartender, a white man who couldn’t jump, a guy who accepts an Indecent Proposal, a Natural Born Killer or a bowling Kingpin, Woody Harrelson excelled in The People vs. Larry Flynt. He’s the type of actor with the right cracked spirit and gumption to fight screen battles as notorious Hustler creator and entrepreneurial free-speech crusader Larry Flynt, a role for which Harrelson bagged his first Oscar nomination. (He really should’ve won; scan the competition and tell me he wasn’t best in show that year). He sat high and mightily pissed off as Flynt, so clearly relishing the grand gestures, chewing on snappy dialogue (sounding gloriously like a submerged Jimmy Stewart in later scenes) and saucy interludes. As ever, Harrelson utilised his cocksure star persona, and subsumed it into his performance just enough to let us know what a good time he was having. It’s certainly one of those all-consuming, span-the-decades biopic performances – the kind of thing you see year in, year out – albeit one with a lot more fury and a lot less dither and fuss than the majority of such ‘big’, look-at-me-Oscar-voter turns. It wasn’t Flynt mimicry, nor was it noticeably overly methodical. Harrelson was pained, scrappy and all the time kicking against censorship with fervour; always an awkward and insouciant bastard, but someone who you could vie for as well as take umbrage with. He made the role so much more than merely an opinionated firebrand in a wheelchair wearing handmade stars and stripes nappies and spouting audacious statements to a courtroom. It’s a bolshie performance, a lived-in performance and, most of all, an immensely joyous performance. As the man says himself in the film: “You don’t wanna quit me, I’m your dream client: I’m the most fun, I’m rich, and I’m always in trouble.”

14 August 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Tommy Lee Jones

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 Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, Jackson County Jail and The Hunted.

Take One: No Country for Old Men (2007) In Joel & Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men the ostensible main character is weary Texas lawman Sheriff Ed Tom Bell played by Tommy Lee Jones, though his co-star Josh Brolin is the film's nominal hero. Jones, though, an ‘old man’ on the verge of retirement and tired of the country he’s patrolled for so long, brings a melancholic meaning to the film’s title. Bell had more of a life/backstory in McCarthy’s novel (much of which the Coens left out) wherein he discusses his experiences in WWII, which hint at a desire to shy away from violent combat/confrontation; his life is generally laid out in more detail. What we do learn of Bell in the film is from the slivers of significant information Jones imparts in his refined characterisation...

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6 August 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Barbara Steele

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 Steele in Black Sunday, Curse of the Crimson Altar and Shivers.

Take One: Black Sunday (1960) In Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (also known as  La maschera del demonio or The Mask of Satan) Steele plays Princess Asa Vajda, a woman put to death by her brother in Moldavia, 1630 only to be resurrected 200 years later as a vampire-witch. Steele also has a second, key role, as local woman Katia Vajda. Princess Asa’s eager to wreak the long-promised revenge upon her descendants – thus proving Sunday is far from a day of rest for the undead. Black Sunday, highly influential and memorable to future horror like Bloody Pit of Horror, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Sleepy Hollow, features some of Steele’s best work.

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4 August 2012

A few words on film lists and the S&S ten-year poll

The other day The Film Experience's Nathaniel Rogers asked all contributors for some thoughts on the recent Sight & Sound ten-year poll. Below is what I came up with:

Above: the cycling scene from Yasujirô Ozu's Late Spring/Banshun (1949), 
which came out at #15 on the poll and a dead cert for one of my personal best/favourite films of all time.

I never see the harm in assembling lists of films to try and assess what does or doesn’t define tastes. If anything, it’s an ideal prompt to get people talking about films, something I’m sure we’re all always pleased to see happen, and a great way to weigh up viewing habits. The Sight & Sound ten-year poll is a ‘big gun’ in this area of film appreciation. I look forward to it and enjoy mulling over the films selected. (I especially like scanning the individual contributor’s choices as they invariably contain wider diversity, some surprises, a few shocks.) But, as with any vast list-making exercise, it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as gospel. The idea of a Greatest List of All-Time Best Films is a tricky and complex one. The word ‘greatest’ has the ring of impenetrable stature, all too rock solid and time-tested. Maybe it should be: What 10, or 30, or, say, 147 films hit you in the gut the hardest, ripped your heart out (this opens up much creative licence to include, say, overly sentimental weepies or cheap, quickie zombie flicks – films which very rarely, if ever, make any list of ‘best’ but indeed have their place), or even caused you to never see the world the same way again. But, ultimately, it’s all technically the same thing: what are the films that we have collectively or individually connected with on a strong emotional level. There’s no truly definitive answer, so the S&S list is what it is: a solid and fascinating collation of celluloid milestones and pleasures that acts as some kind of cultural barometer as well as a to-(re)watch list for casual moviegoers and cineliterates alike. But, whether you’re pro or con on the practice of ranking films, it does at least inspire some passionate, hearty debate, which is essentially the whole point.

2 August 2012

At the Cinema: The Raid

The Raid (Gareth Evans/Indonesia, USA/101mins)

At the break of dawn a twenty-strong SWAT team makes an attempt to overtake a slum tower block full of murderers, drug dealers and other assorted criminals. Enter, fight, finish-off, depart. This is, gleefully, what The Raid is: a hefty dispensation of physical pummelling up and across thirty floors. But there’s no clean sweep – the intensive climb to the crime lord at the top is grim, strenuous and messy. And immensely gripping fun. Everyone at some point gets seven shades of shit kicked out of them; it’s gruesomely giddy entertainment for anyone who seeks pure action momentum and nothing but. Iko Uwais plays Rama, the film’s standout team member and ostensibly the lead character, the one we’re here to cheer for (he has pregnant wife at home). Watching him scale the block, leaving a trail of human carnage at every level, has the mounting tension of a video game; we are, as he is, focused on the ‘win’ at the end of ‘play’. It gets harder the higher he goes as increasingly near-unachievable obstacles are thrown his way.

One such obstacle is the villain’s (Ray Sahetapy) main henchman ‘Mad dog’ (Yayan Ruhian), an equal in stamina and might to Rama. They have an all-consuming ten minute smackdown – a mutual full-bodied blitzkrieg of fists and kicks – that feels like it lasts thrice as long, so prolonged and intensely brutal is it. But it’s moments like this that thrill the most and make you forget about the sparseness of the actual plot and character shading surrounding it. It’s not of paramount importance that The Raid should be as strong or narratively dexterous as the battle-hardened bodies fighting within it, but some clichés stand out and some story elements feel shopworn, frayed.

Does it have to be a pregnant wife that hero Uwais fights to be reunited with? (Brightly lit flashbacks during his most tortuous moments remind him, and us, that he simply must go on for her.) There’s of course nothing wrong with that. But for once could it be that, for argument's sake, he’s, say, desperate to return to a man at home? Or that he’s got a hot date with the girl of his dreams later that evening? Or that he’s doing all this so that he can make the person who trained him to fight so expertly proud of him? Or that he’s simply booked an absolutely smashing once-in-a-lifetime holiday for the week after and, like, really really wants to go on it? (Whilst I’m at it: are there any other types of villains in films such as this who don’t wear floaty floral shirts, open-toed sandals and eat slices of apples off knives? This is a long way, both time- and tone-wise to 1980s Miami Vice episodes.) What I'm getting at is: does Rama really need an added, exterior reason for us to care? Don't we want our leading characters to succeed simply because they're in an awful life-threatening situation? Investment in who we champion onscreen doesn't necessarily require a, dare I say it, mawkish backstory. Give Rama no motive. Let there be an ounce of anonymous allure to him.

These are on the whole minor quibbles, and certainly won’t nag every viewer, but they point out – along with a case of the familiar ‘he-shot-him-not-him’ switcheroo toward the end – that a few fresher decisions regarding characterisation might have made for a script to equal the inspired and thrilling action. Some leftfield, out-of-the-blue surprises would have added to the suspense that the action provided. These issues fade somewhat the more the fighting intensifies; it’s as if Evans knows full well that a rapid body count overrides intermittent plot nitpicking. The creative and slick merging of the exhaustive and crisply realised sound effects (grunts, gurgles, GORENOISE!) with Aria Prayogi, Joseph Trapanese and Fajar Yuskemal’s score (soundscape glitches, pounding beats, high tension) is one of the film’s chief pleasures – as is the fact that Evans doesn’t appear to believe in relenting even for a moment. And The Raid is more enjoyable for it.

30 July 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Danny DeVito

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 DeVito in Ruthless People, The War of the Roses and Batman Returns.

Take One: Ruthless People (1987) DeVito wants Bette Midler dead and gone in Ruthless People. The sooner the better preferably, with a minimum of fuss and personal expense. Sam "spandex mini-skirt king" Stone's wife Barbara (Midler) is kidnapped by the nicest people to ever venture to the criminal side, Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater. When, over the phone, Reinhold relays his strict rules regarding heiress Barbara's ransom, DeVito’s face brightens by the minute at the idea that she will be killed if he disobeys their orders or if any police intervention is suspected. Cue a fleet of cop cars and every news channel in LA reporting on the story. Cut to: Sam popping a champagne cork with filthy glee...

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23 July 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Eva Mendes

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 Eva Mendes in Live!, Hitch and Last Night.

Take One: Live! (2007)
Building on her dramatic work in We Own the Night the same year, Mendes took on another (semi) serious role, one deviously tinged with delicious black comedy, as TV executive Katy in Bill Guttentag’s Reality TV mock-doc Live! Perfectly styled in sharp attire and a coffee ‘to-go’ in hand, Mendes' Katy is ambitious, ruthless and most likely hollow on the inside. She has grand ideas. One of them kick-starts Live!’s plot: six members of the public will play Russian roulette live on air; the sole survivor is the winner...
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17 July 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Vincent D'Onofrio

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 Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, Impostor and Staten Island.

Take One: Full Metal Jacket (1987)

The first thing I think about when I think about Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is D’Onofrio’s face, sunken into a foul grimace by deep hatred – of himself and everything and everyone around him – as he sits on a toilet in the starkly Kubrickian military ‘head’ in the dead of night, loaded rifle by his side. “Hi joker,” he says, in a decidedly creepy fashion, as Matthew Modine shines a torch on his face. Somethin’s up. He’s not quite... there. "I AM... in a world... of shit!” This exchange draws us into one of the film’s most powerfully effective scenes, one that stays wedged in your mind...
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16 July 2012

At the Cinema: Magic Mike

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh/2012/110mins)

The promise that Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike is 110 chunky minutes of Channing vigorously shaking his Tatums at the screen is tempered slightly by the fact that it does actually have a story to sketch out in between the ab-flashes and slipped-out nips. Decent guy stripper/roofer/bespoke furniture-maker Mike (Tatum) reluctantly introduces The Kid (Alex Pettyfer, not credited with a proper name so I may as well call him Mike too) into the life of the Tampa Bay strip circuit: at first times are fun; then times are bad. This is the gist of it all. There’s some hazed yellow-tinged Florida scenery (courtesy of DoP Peter Andrews aka Soderbergh himself) balanced with many sweaty-chested interludes to wink-nudge us along on this nearly-rags-to-kinda-riches tale. It doesn’t quite nail the cosy sleaziness that made Boogie Nights a tragic yet game example of the boy-(eventually)-makes-good genre, nor does it have its staying power, but it does have pocketfuls of charm. Tatum’s skittish romance with The Kid Mike’s disapproving sister Cody Horn is entirely winsome and shows that these two could fill a whole film of their own, in the manner of Before Sunrise/Sunset, with just their idle flirty banter. Matthew McConaughey as the strip club’s still-fit veteran honcho plays his scenes with raffish poise. He’s such an accomplished performer that any director must breathe a sigh of relief when he signs on to their project; fuss-free professionalism comes as standard with him. The rest of the strippers played by Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Nash (let’s call them all Mike) don’t get much of a look-in personality wise, but they do play, respectively, a Ken doll, someone with a big dick, a fireman and Tarzan very capably.

The plot flip-flops between sunnier days (everyone drinks copious amounts of beer anytime, anywhere) and a few grim nights (everyone does copious amounts of drugs anytime, anywhere) with rapidity. We get an essence of struggle and a sliver of bleakness, but nothing substantially dramatic enough to fully invest in those straining in the dark. But Soderbergh knows that a handful of becoming characters frequently and affably delivering some decent lines with little haste means we won’t necessarily dwell on anything too sinister lurking in the background. (Was the girl played by Riley Keough dead the morning after the blow-out party? The film leaves her fate oddly unexamined.) The stresses of the current economy is touched on briefly (“The only thing distressed is you,” says Channing-Mike to a flustered female bank teller who won’t give him a loan), but Soderbergh is mostly generally happy to just get playful with his direction to show us how shabby-glam the whole scene is: low shots of the stripping stage put us in the thrill pit alongside hen-party hecklers; skewed-angle or close-up shots in flaring reds and blues make intoxicatingly abstract imagery of faces and bodies. There’s fun to be had with these people, especially Tatum’s Mike and McConaughey’s Dallas, and there’s one shot which visualises with icky daftness the very notion of the term ‘pig sick’.

Also, check out my Magic Mike-related article on 'male strippers in the movies' in the latest issue of Attitude Magazine.

3 July 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Alfre Woodard

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 Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish, The Forgotten and Crooklyn.

Take One: Passion Fish (1992) After dismissing a string of unsuitable nurses, recently paralysed TV actress May-Alice (Mary McDonnell) opts to hire Alfre Woodard’s mysterious Chantelle in John Sayles’ Bayou drama Passion Fish. Chantelle enters the film out of nowhere, off a bus and into May-Alice’s house. She doesn’t let on any overt details about her life, but there’s a hint of intrigue about her, something amiss and troubling. It's evident in the slightly trembling nervous manner in which Chantelle goes about her new position. McDonnell’s icy actress will gradually thaw as a result of her dependency, but not before she attempts to make life miserable for Chantelle – who’s having none of it...

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26 June 2012

Take Three @ TFE: John C. Reilly

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 John C. Reilly in Terri, Step Brothers and Magnolia.

Take One: Terri (2011) The last couple of years have brought Reilly a trio of great dramedic roles. He showed real range in a slight but noteworthy career shift from his usual broader comedies to Cyrus, Carnage and Terri. The third film which is about the lonely life of an overweight high school outcast (Jacob Wysocki) was a particularly great role for Reilly. He was unassuming, believable and much more curiously sombre than in most of the roles we've seen him play to date. (He also played Tilda Swinton’s husband in We Need to Talk about Kevin last year, though his role was largely, though I'd argue unfairly, labelled as miscasting.)...

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19 June 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Cécile De France

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 Cécile De France in Haute tension, Hereafter and The Kid with a Bike.

Take One: Haute tension/Switchblade Romance (2004) De France brings an entirely new meaning to the term ‘Final Girl’ in Alexandre Aja’s Haute tension (or, to give it its more exploitation-happy title, Switchblade Romance). Spoiler Alert: Although we see Philippe Nahon doing the relentless butchering throughout the film, it emerges toward the end that he’s merely a projection of De France’s Marie’s imagination; he’s the product of pent-up sexual urge in Marie to create a marauding male monster in her mind. It all gets very muddy before becoming incredibly bloody...

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6 June 2012

At the Cinema: Prometheus

Prometheus (Ridley Scott/USA/123mins)

 *Spoiler warning Major plot points are revealed below*

Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction filmmaking was always going to be full of anticipation and awe – and perhaps a bit of trepidation. Several decades after he created one of the benchmarks in sci-fi/-horror filmmaking with Alien, he decided to go back to the stuff of dark, otherworldly beings, space travel and the threat from within. With Prometheus he’s made a film of audacious and inspired breadth, one full of tantalising suggestions and themes, and vast ideas to chime with its many scenes of tense action. It of course relates to Alien, though does so in a variety of interesting ways. But it also veers off on an intriguing tangent, keener to explore what could be expanded from one previously undeveloped thought within Alien (where did that bizarre, fossilised being sat in the pilot seat of the derelict ship actually come from?) than in pursuing a rigorously direct line toward Ripley and co’s future findings. However, comparisons are inevitable and unavoidable: Prometheus acknowledges the world of Alien, is indeed set in that universe, and yet works diligently to creatively swerve around it. Scott posited this plan from day one and in his own steadfast way he’s followed through on his promise in a grand, fascinating manner. The word ‘prequel’, though, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The plot begins on a planet, probably Earth, at the dawn of time: a cloaked human-alien figure (called ‘Engineers’ here, but ostensibly the ‘Space Jockey’ character in the pilot’s chair) drinks something that violently disagrees with him and he falls – and falls apart – into a waterfall, thus very likely seeding life on earth; a massive spaceship ominously tilts overhead and life adapts in the depths of the water. Zipping to 2089, two archaeologist-scientists, and lovers, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshal Green) find cave pictograms suggesting alien visitation on the Isle of Skye: is this a map or an invitation? Corporate honcho Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) pays their interstellar fare and then they’re both cryo-sleeping their way to a far-off moon, LV-233, along with 15 other crew members aboard the exploratory ship Prometheus to investigate just what those mysterious inscriptions might mean and hold for life on earth. The outlook isn’t good: they’ve been invited to a weird, bad party where the hosts are less than hospitable. Shaw and Holloway are joined by an android servant, David (Michael Fassbender), duplicitous Weyland suit Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), jovial ship’s captain, Janek (Idris Elba), and a support crew that comprises botanist Millburn (Rafe Spall), geologist Fifield (Sean Harris) and medic Ford (Kate Dickie).

Prometheus is full of tantalising suggestion, through which it offers up more than a few thoughtful questions regarding its key themes: human inception; faith in, and attempts at playing, gods and “makers”; the necessity and drive to search for bigger answers to our creation. Scott and his writers (the script was originally written by Jon Spaihts, and then later reworked by Damon Lindelof) evidently wanted to create a new sci-fi arena, and perhaps turn it into a fresh saga, by focusing on a different set of questions than what were pondered in Alien. Why repeats the exact same thoughts and ideas from 33 years ago? It is both an “Alien film”, part of the canon, if you like, and an entirely new enterprise; but it works best if you dial down your desire for it to perfectly dovetail with the exact events of Alien. It doesn’t strictly segue into that film and I very much doubt it was ever intended to, evident by the way in which the plot is left unarguably open-ended. But it does lay foundations which lead up to it. I appreciated the move away into a fresh terrain (literally, this isn’t LV-426, the planet where the action of Alien/Aliens occurred), whilst still admiring that it retained, as Scott himself mentioned in the release preamble, “strands of DNA from the first film.” It largely succeeds with its many elusive references, and motors wilfully along throwing them open to sometimes follow through on them and occasionally leaving them hanging. This could be due to a slightly muddled script, a by-product of the editing working to accommodate a plethora of diverse dramatic content or some sheer bloody-mindedness on Scott and co’s part. It’s entirely open for debate.

One of the criticisms of the script is that there are gaps in the plot and characters aren’t well enough developed. These are fair concerns, but not entirely justified. The script rejig is evident at certain points in the film – there are leaps made in the narrative that feel as if scenes had been written then discarded or perhaps filmed then edited for brevity – but, even so, a relatively thorough through-line is present. Actions and consequences build in fine fashion, enough to outlay the film’s intentions, but halt just shy of telling us everything. The alien ‘contamination’, spread of infection and eventual revelation as to what it results in (the cycle that begins with the gooey, black organic substance contained in cylindrical ampoules that the crew discover arranged in strange patterns in the ‘alien temple) follows a logical and organically just path as it did in the Alien films. The race to meet a satisfying conclusion does sometimes make impractical narrative bounds to get there, but an element of vigilant confidence on our part is required. Had Scott and his writers filled in every blank, and casually mistrusted an audience to supply for themselves the somewhat easily intuitable events on screen, then the film would’ve been judged for being overly complex or too obvious. Some of the dialogue does fall to the ground with the thud of a space helmet, but I saw this as the something to enjoy in the cheery, cheesy spirit of, say, a b-movie one-liner of old, instead of idly bemoaning its lack of Shakespearian depth.

There are many instances where the actors reveal more telling aspects to their characters than initially apparent. With seventeen cast members and a lot of ground (quite literally) to cover, some characters were never going to get the time to play out their individual arcs. (Alien had 7 characters; Aliens just over twenty.) One or two barely speak and serve as bystanders or mere background padding (the Weyland security team who loiter around the ship’s deck) and a few are perfunctory presences (the unnamed guy that Fifield, after “turning”, kills first; the always-armed Weyland bodyguard). But many of the key crew members experience moments, however fleeting, that enhance our understanding of them and show curious or subtle character interaction; these are the kind of details that may get lost within the throng of on-board elation or panic. The way Scott directs – particularly in the first forty-five-or-so minutes – and the way he structures scenes and certain shots positions characters together to interact in ways that establish links: David and Ford talking idly on the ship’s approach; Millburn’s and Fifield’s awkwardly humorous early pairing; Shaw and Janek sharing moments of amiably complicit bonding before the ship’s landing. The script sets up such small, almost throwaway moments of interaction so they can be brought narratively to fruition later: David and Ford are joined in their complicity with Weyland after it’s revealed that she’s solely on board, not to simply be the ship’s medic, but to act as Weyland’s personal doctor (and of course David is Weyland’s “son”); Millburn and Fifield continue their banter until a shared fear of the team’s discovery leads to mutually unfortunate fates for both; and Shaw and Janek seem to almost intuitively know that it will take the biggest sacrifice of all to stop “death” being delivered to earth. Such connections are made early and cemented – albeit in piecemeal fashion – later on. The thread linking characters is there to be picked up on.

The performances of the main cast complement one another well. Lighter moments on the ship come courtesy of hearty Elba and his squabbling co-pilots Chance (Emun Elliott) and Ravel (Benedict Wong). Theron acts as an unsettling embodiment of corporate shiftiness regarding the threat that awaits them; she’s always lurking mysteriously but, as she loses her grip on events and comprehends the implications of what’s in store (and is shunned from daddy’s affections) she softens somewhat, and becomes more fascinating as a character. Marshall Green does cocksure science bragger well enough to warrant his prime position among the cast. Guy Pearce adds to his earlier cameo by popping up to sport some excessively wrinkled makeup and reveal just why he’s funded this doomed expedition. And Fassbender commands in his pivotal role, one in which the frosty charm seen in some of his other work (Shame, Fish Tank) is put to fine, apt use as a robot who has his own terrible plan to execute. But it’s Rapace’s film. Her arc is the one that connects the narrative together. The prideful, open-faced curiosity and eagerness of her earlier scenes (in the cave and during the debriefing after hypersleep) is deftly offset by what happens to Shaw later. After a scene of, how to say, unpractised surgical conduct, Rapace has to mentally and physically wrench Shaw along; she exerts palpable fear at the mounting disaster the expedition has become and desperately wrestles with a nagging internal conflict regarding her faith. (Notice how blankly she reacts to David at the end when he says, “Even after all this, you still have your faith?”; and watch how both her expression and her demeanour visibly sours when she puts on Charlie’s ring as she stands in front of a mirror – the realisation of what this has all lead to, and the big decision as to What Happens Now, irrevocably dawns on Shaw in a devastating way.)

Visually Prometheus is an astonishing achievement. The vast set design created on a grand scale for the inside of the tomb-like temple – the one which houses the a collection of ominous vase-like containers, arranged in similar fashion to the eggs in Alien, that spread out beneath the huge stone humanoid head, as seen in the promotional campaign – is an astounding technical feat. It allows the cast to interact integrally with their surroundings and impress upon viewers genuinely awed reactions (depending, of course, on what takes were used). Dariusz Wolski’s photography makes highly effective use of muted, hazy-neon hues and bright whites to highlight the ship’s slick interiors and crepuscular lighting for the industrial-eerie layout of the “Engineers” ship; a suffocating air is convincingly conjured in both locations in impressive, differing ways. Pietro Scalia edits everything with keen efficiency, making the multi-stranded action within the two main locations coherently and dramatically thrilling. Marc Streitenfeld scores everything with, alternately, appropriate low-droning tension and shifts into grandiosity; his score adds playfully hopeful notes to certain scenes too. And the special effects are top-drawer and maintain perfect-pitch throughout; there isn’t one scene which contains less-than-stellar effects work. Scott brings a long career of well-observed directorial judgments onto Prometheus with him. He makes sly nods toward his previous sci-fi work, yet finds fresh ways to visualise an environment of both exploration and dread. Whether it’s seeing the expanse of the USCSS Prometheus cut a sliver through a planet’s atmosphere from afar or following the crew as they investigate confining, unfamiliar labyrinthine corridors, Scott directs with inquisitiveness of a newcomer; it feels, with each scene, that he’s wholly and progressively fascinated with this world he’s exploring.

It’s not without flaws. Some narrative decisions do seem slightly baffling and some lines clang. And there’s occasionally the sense that some aspects were possibly a touch over-thought-out in pre-production. Events aren’t tied up in way that those wanting absolute closure or All the Right Answers will be satisfied by. But who’s to say they needed to stop the story dead here. The threads left hanging inspire as much curiosity as they do bewilderment. But its successes far outweigh its issues, and even its few imperfections are interesting and healthy topics for further thought. (I noticed many of the problems easily fall away on a second viewing.) But let’s see if there’s any lasting passionate debate with well-measured consideration behind it – and with maybe a dash of hindsight, say, and some space to let the thing play out widely first – before consigning it as a ‘disappointment’. For now, it's an ambitiously fascinating and near-endlessly compelling slice of science fiction filmmaking carried out with considerable skill. It’s entirely striking, often exhilarating and driven by interesting questions. I'll happily take audacious, inspired, messy, elaborate and involving cinema, which attempts to strive for ideas to work alongside its sublime thrills, over many other films that don’t even have the balls to try any day.