30 May 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Toby Kebbell

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 Toby Kebbell in War Horse, Wilderness and RocknRolla.

Take One: War Horse (2011) There’s a plethora of male British thespian talent in Steven Spielberg’s equine weepie War Horse: Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Mullen, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Marsan, Liam Cunningham and David Thewlis all add their tuppence-worth to the tale of Joey the one-stallion battalion and his toilsome travels through WWI. But Kebbell’s scenes, late in the film, were among the most subtly affecting...

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21 May 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Grace Zabriskie

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 Grace Zabriskie in The Passion of Darkly Noon, The Grudge and Inland Empire.

It was Grace Zabriskie’s 71st birthday last week. She’s achieved a lot in her vast career, with over the 34 years of acting: she had a daughter with oversized thumbs (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues); paid River Phoenix for sex (My Own Private Idaho); been killed by Chuckie (Child’s Play 2); ran on a brothel  (The Brothel); evangelized about vampires (Blood Ties); had a asteroid named after her (Armageddon); performed a voodoo sex-killing (Wild at Heart); fought for workers' rights (Norma Rae); navigated b-movie space horrors (Galaxy of Terror); and turned mourning into a mad maternal art (Twin Peaks). And that's just ten of her 93+ screen roles.

Take One: The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995) Mad maternal mourning aptly fits Zabriskie’s part in Philip Ridley’s strange fable, The Passion of Darkly Noon. She plays a forest-dwelling recluse named Roxy, who has only a shotgun, a Rottweiler and her own unhinged beliefs to keep her company. The film is a sinister hotbed of religion and retribution set in a secluded and surreal Southern state. Roxy believes her estranged daughter Callie (Ashley Judd) to be the witch who led her husband astray, and a force to be expelled from her uneasy Eden. When Darkly Noon (Brendan Fraser) stumbles upon her trailer home, she encourages him to do just that. “I am still here,” she tells him with teeth-gritting fury, “waiting for her to be punished.”

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14 May 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Chris Cooper

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 Chris Cooper in Adaptation., Breach and The Muppets.

Take One: Adaptation. (2002)

Cooper was up against a quartet of big names in the 2003 Best Supporting Actor Oscar race: Christopher Walken (Catch Me if You Can), Ed Harris (The Hours), John C. Reilly (Chicago) and Paul Newman (Road to Perdition). As the then least weighty name, his nomination didn’t necessarily guarantee success. But, conversely, his fifteen prior award wins and a further 5 nominations for the role spoke volumes. He emerged victorious, yet, inexplicably, Adaptation remains his only nod to date...

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8 May 2012

At the Cinema: The Lucky One

The Lucky One (Scott Hicks/USA/101mins)

Zac Efron appears to be playing the ideal man in The Lucky One. He’s a politely moody, lightly brooding ex-Marine who oh-so earnestly values the lives of others. He walks across entire states just to thank a lady he’s never met. He reads highbrow literature (Moby Dick). He plays the piano beautifully. He can fix old tractors and boats, bathe old dogs and fix up old crumbling yet still picturesque lakeside mansions. He has thoughtful greeting-card-slogan tattoos (“All Glory Is Fleeting”). His eyes, muscles and, most likely, his very soul seem to gleam in the perfect Louisiana sunlight. I actually thought there might be a rug-pull twist near the end where it’s revealed that he’s actually playing Christ. Or some kind of ‘higher alien being’. Or, perhaps, a stalker (as inferred by one character late in the film). Of course he’s merely ‘perfect Zac-fron’: wounded war hero, loner and dab hand at looking mournfully chiseled. Was there even a question that single Southern belle Taylor Schilling wouldn’t consider nailing him in place when she first claps eyes on him?

She doesn’t because she has boring unresolved emotional issues. But you can see from the way she washes pots as if she’s masturbating, and can’t unglue her peepers from his arse at all times, that she’ll, by any god available, get him at banged some point soon. From the moment he leaves his tour of duty after finding a photo of Schilling (an act which inadvertently saves his life) to the moment he embeds himself in her life and, er, bed, it’s all a heated dash through run-of-the-mill wish-fulfilment fluff of the kind mechanically peddled in every Nicholas Sparks adaptation (see The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe, Dear John). What sets it ever-so-slightly apart is the manner in which director Scott Hicks frames the story. He has a deft hand with frame composition that elevates any given instance of romantic sun-dappled cosiness. His direction often positions characters at unusual angles and distances within the film frame that effectively assist the cheese-baked narrative; it even helps usher events forward as efficiently as possible within the just-a-bit-too-long running time. The cinematography was the real standout, however: Alar Kivilo lights everything with a crisp beauty that doesn’t lean too heavily toward treacle or too longingly on the homely visual arrangements. All that golden, gleaming daylight is – rather surprisingly for a Sparks flick – held in check via Kivilo’s uncommonly spare work. I was impressed how handsome the film looked and how it restrained from too much schmaltzy over-indulgence.

As it goes, Efron plays it all in firm fashion, if a bit on the rigid side. He brightens when he plays chess with Schilling’s kid (he’s good at chess too!) or when he frolics with her dogs; but he darkens again when her cop ex-husband comes sniffing round looking for trouble. Efron’s two competing emotions are befitting a recently-traumatised marine, but perhaps more personality – like what he displayed in 17 Again – would’ve perked his character up a bit. Schilling does a lot of exasperated hand acting. Blythe Danner (as Schilling’s grandmother) does a lot of exasperated hair acting. Supporting characters come and go – all too fleeting to make much impact upon the plot or intrude upon the industrial-sized ‘crush zone’ built up by Efron and Schilling. But that’s precisely what many women and men go to a Sparks adaptation for. Hicks and his filmmaking team ensure this goes without nary a snag or an ugly shot in sight. They do just about a better job than anyone else previously. Not that this says much: the Sparks Insta-Romance (with Minor Breezy Complications) Plot Generator chugs along as per usual.

7 May 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Piper Laurie

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 Piper Laurie in Hesher, Twin Peaks and Carrie.

Take One: Hesher (2010) Laurie has played the grandmother figure a few times in recent years (Hounddog, Eulogy, The Dead Girl), but she best conveyed matriarchal feeling last year in Hesher. The film uses the familiar narrative coupling of a loveable old person and unruly younger person connecting despite obvious differences. This time it's carried out with keen subtlety because the people involved are Laurie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who make this arrangement work in a delightfully fresh way. Their friendship isn’t the main thrust of the narrative, but a key characterful diversion, and the genuinely heartfelt union elevates the film with tiny moments of tender affection...

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