30 April 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Michael Rooker

This week my "Take Three" column (every Sunday, three write-ups on three performances in a supporting/character actor's career) over at The Film Experience features Michael Rooker in Slither, Cliffhanger and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Take One: Slither (2007) Rooker has a very bad time of it in Slither. For starters, he plays a brute and tyrant, and is almost pathologically cocksure of his local status as a small-town car dealer. He’s horrible and unfaithful to his wife and his name, Grant Grant, is doubly dumb. So when he’s “killed” by an alien parasite in a meteor which re-animates him as a mind-absorbed, ET-hosting slug-mutant, you don’t exactly sob over his lot in life. But things get worse: he has a future as the head of a fleshy multi-person blob – the kind of thing that Brian Yuzna or David Cronenberg might cook up after particularly eventful dreams – to look forward to. Before that, Rooker leaves a slime trail of extraterrestrial carnage...

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23 April 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Anne Heche

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 Anne Heche in Birth, Cedar Rapids and Psycho (1998).

Take One: Birth (2004) Whilst watching Birth I’m sure you, like me, were thinking: just what the heck is Anne Heche doing in Central Park? Near the start of Jonathan Glazer’s reincarnation baffler Heche acts in mysterious ways. She suspiciously sneaks out of a hotel lobby and onto the snowy streets of Manhattan. She’s rustling around in the bushes, digging a hole. Is she burying the gift intended for Anna (Nicole Kidman)? Is it even a gift? It looks like some sort of proof, evidence. Her character, Clara, holds the film’s secrets from the get-go. In accordance with the way Glazer structures the script in these early scenes, fragmented by Sam Sneade and Claus Wehlisch’s editing, Clara becomes an enigma we know we'll worryingly come back to later...

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17 April 2012

Take Three @ TFE: John Hurt

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 Hurt in Brighton Rock, Dogville and The Elephant Man.

Take One: Brighton Rock (2010) Hurt has alternated starring roles with supporting performances since he began acting in films with The Wild and the Willing in 1962. The amount of quality supporting turns he’s delivered over the years is vast: 10 Rillington Place, Midnight Express, The Shout, The Hit, Scandal, The Field, Contact, The Proposition, Melancholia, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are a mere few. His fine turn as accountant Phil Corkery in the Brighton Rock remake (backing up Helen Mirren, Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough and Andy Serkis) is a recent solid addition to the list and deserves due credit...

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15 April 2012

Top Ten Films of the Year 2011 #1: POETRY

First, here's a rundown of films 10-2 in my best of 2011:

10. Snowtown
09. A Separation
08. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
07. Julia's Eyes
06. 13 Assassins
05. Bridesmaids
04. The Messenger
03. Drive
02. Melancholia

And finally, 01...

Poetry Shi (Lee Chang-dong/South Korea/139mins)

The opening scenes of Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry set up an intriguing premise that the rest of the film delicately, and at times unnervingly, goes all out to provide an answer for. A distant object floats down a wide river; it’s not until it nears the camera (positioned in the water itself) that we realise it’s the body of a murdered girl. Yang Mija (an excellent performance by Yoon Jeong-hee, who came out of retirement to be in the film) is a grandmother in her sixties living in Busan. She’s suffering from the recent onset of Alzheimer’s and the trials of looking after an unruly grandson (who has been implicated in the assault and death of the girl from the opening). She has little money, is on welfare and also looks after an elderly male neighbour. Old age isn’t quiet or content for Mija. Her life is more fraught with tricky decisions than a lady her age deserves. But she’s also fresh to the joys of poetry, having joined a class that she manages to fit into her already hectic existence. Whilst seeking out the answers to the girl’s death, Mija begins to see the world around her in new ways. She slowly begins to fill her notebook up with words and thoughts for her class.

This may all sound overly sentimental, but Poetry is anything but saccharine in its approach to its narrative. Its tone is elegant, simple, frank. The way Chang-dong plays out the central drama of his plot is smartly measured (Poetry is one of the most beautifully paced films I’ve seen in a long time) and, crucially, by the end heart-rending. Everything works to the advantage of the story. We experience in tandem with Mija what she does; we gain insight into her choices, her actions and the particulars of her life. Poetry utilises the tools of filmmaking in beautifully effective ways to achieve this: Hyun Seok Kim’s photography highlights the pleasures and terrors of Mija’s journey with an extraordinary lightness; Hyun Kim’s editing creates sensitive ebb and flow throughout; and Chang-dong’s direction - perhaps the best of any film from last year – contains the right amount of thoughtful, subtle agency. Each and every shot tells us something more, something integral about the story. The whole film is leavened, brought alive most, by Jeong-hee’s bright, delightful performance. Her reaction to the turn of events, and the way she commands attention even with the most minute of gestures, is captivating. Her lilting laugh and delicate manner stayed with me well after I’d left the cinema. Poetry makes good on its title in its final scenes too. It has spent over two hours detailing one woman’s immersion into new ways of seeing the world, but then it shows us its own lessons in poetic perception. This is a sublime film.

13 April 2012

Interview: Travis Mathews / Review: I Want Your Love

Last week I was asked by Fringe! Film Festival to interview director Travis Mathews and review his debut film, I Want Your Love.

Jesse Metzger in I Want Your Love

This week sees the return of the Fringe! Gay Film Festival to East London. From the 12th to the 15th of April a wide range of films (new features, experimental shorts, premieres) are showing alongside a host of parties, shows and events. This year’s opening film was I Want Your Love, Travis Mathews’ (In Their Bedroom – Berlin) poignantly affecting and intimately explicit debut feature. It stars Jesse Metzger as Jesse, a love-lost San Francisco performance artist about to leave his life and career frets behind for a fresh start in Ohio. We see him hang out with friends, and follow how their lives reflect, and differ from, Jesse’s as they prepare to throw him a leaving party...

 Travis Mathews, director of I Want Your Love

Read the interview and review here at The Film Experience

8 April 2012

Take Three @ TFE: Melissa Leo

This Sunday my "Take Three" column (every Sunday, three write-ups on three performances in a supporting/character actor's career) returns for its third and possibly final series over at The Film Experience. First actor up is Melissa Leo in Red State, Mildred Pierce and Frozen River.

Take One: Red State (2011)

Leo gives an ugly yet riveting supporting performance as Sara in Kevin Smith’s Red State. She’s the matriarch with no maternal manners of the Five Points Trinity Church and wife to Michael Parks’ Phelps-like religious nutjob. We first see her open a trailer door to three horny teens who, we eventually gather, she entraps with the promise of a ‘good time’. She’s chugging a beer, resignedly eyeing these unsuspecting victims, playing her part in their “punishment”. Leo makes Sara immediately unlikeable. She’s a fully paid-up cult member either lost in ecstatic zeal (when Parks’ Abin spouts his bile-filled sermons) or riddled with utter contempt for ‘outsiders’ (all other times). But at no point does Leo deliver a two-dimensional portrait of hatefulness...

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5 April 2012

At the Cinema: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross/USA/142mins)  

Keep your eyes peeled, there are one or two minor spoilers mentioned below

Based on the popular sci-fi adventure novel (the first in a series of three) by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games has a premise partway familiar from a grab bag of other films. Name checks can be, and surely have already been, made: The Running Man, Battle Royale, Series 7: The Contenders are a few points of reference. (I’d throw in reality-telly Russian roulette-a-thon Live! and a dash of both The Beast Must Die and The Most Dangerous Game, for some – possibly apt, possibly tenuous – value too.) Many of these are perhaps easy comparisons, but certainly viable ones. Gary Ross (directing from his script co-written with Collins and Billy Ray) sets the film out as a tidier televised version of a dystopian death contest; its family-friendly slant is as per the very likely request of the cash-eyeing studio; an insurance that the target audience will transfer from book to film with requisite ease.

The premise has bold elements of grim sportsmanship: in a future America 24 teens from a range of impoverished districts are pitted against one another in a fight to the death; one victor will survive, leaving 23 young corpses in his or her wake. The film gets around the troublesome conundrum of being too gory by being too tremulous: Ross suffers from a case of the ‘lazy shakes’. When his quaking camera isn't hovering on the periphery, it’s frenetically tailing his characters in search of visual pep to add extra panic to proceedings. This displays flashy technical know-how and, more crucially, an avoidance of anything too bloody – Ross can dart away from a youth getting knifed or hacked down as he pleases – but it regularly stunts the atmosphere of many scenes. Artistic hysteria doesn’t always equate aesthetic coherence. Of course these occasionally coy camera pans are par for the course, but it leaves the film feeling half-cocked.

Lead Jennifer Lawrence, as heroine Katniss Everdeen, conveys the fear of ambush and imminent peril well, and she gives each scene her all. Although she’s only really entrusted to expand upon the blankly determined innocence she embodied so memorably in Winter’s Bone. Her bright yet anguished face gets plenty of screen time (Ross knows she has star potential), but she doesn’t get too much opportunity to emotionally or physically vary what she does: where’s a truly kick-ass, pained Katniss? There are hints to her game complicity throughout, but these aren’t elaborated upon at any length. She's a skilled archer, and clever with the tricks of survival, so instead of merely being the focus of all the film’s noble suffering she might have been given the chance to show the more calculating, duplicitous side. (There were glimpses of it when she was on the TV show with Stanley Tucci.) I don’t know how she compares to the character in the book, but I wanted more sneak and shifty trickery from her; she could’ve been a heroine with more shading to her personality.

I wish that the film had a dash more personality overall. There are a host of characters, though few stayed in my mind for longer than the duration of, say, an extended ad break. With such an estimable cast of character/supporting actors – the main reason, if I’m honest, that I went to see it – the scope for a delectable cameo or two was vast. No one, despite appearances, gets to add their tuppence worth of actorly pizzazz however: Woody Harrelson hides behind a bad wig and bourbon breath; Elizabeth Banks makes perky priggishness her sole trait; Donald Sutherland snoozed his way through a mere three brief scenes; Stanley Tucci was one wink shy of a mid-week lottery show; and Toby Jones didn’t even, I don’t think, finish a whole line reading. The casting director could’ve expanded on the inclusion of musician Lenny Kravitz in the cast: how about getting Axel Rose to commit to what Harrelson only touched on; have Lady Gaga flitting her way through Teenkill Bootcamp in killer pink; why not dig out David Bowie to preside over Panem instead of Sutherland; and why not replace forgettable Wes Bentley and throw in that guy from Maroon 5... who likes just like Wes Bentley? This type of cracked casting may have raised worries and eyebrows but it might have also lubricated the filmmakers’ cynically savvy poke at reality TV mores (exemplified by the likes of The X Factor, Pop Idol etc).

The TV angle – the commentary by Tucci and Jones – was actually what The Hunger Games needed less of. Their purpose was a specific part of the film’s cultural criticisms, but narratively it was a cack-handed move. A scene would be set up with visual pointers or hints to what might happen (i.e. the scene with the hornet’s nest), then a cutaway to Tucci and Jones explaining what’s highly likely to occur next; cut back to the action – and there we have it! They were right. They are doing their work as commentators, sure, but they eradicate the visual storytelling. This fudged, sequencing of events happens several times over the duration of the main ‘game’, and it robs the audience of surprising elements, limiting the players, central characters that the audience have invested time in, to drones acting out predisposed tasks. Didn’t the pre-emptive loudspeaker interruptions/prompts do this job already, and with intriguing scope for some psychological mind games? Why the need for added exposition? The target audience – any interested audience – surely isn’t shy of the curious powers of narrative deduction. The makers don’t appear to trust us to see it play out as it should unaided by blather. The many narrative snafus that bog down The Hunger Games occasionally make it less an adventure, more a trawl; more intensity required, less... sitting around in forests. There are escapades enough elsewhere to counteract the moments of narrative foul-up, but they are intermittent and, perhaps, not half as captivating as they were in the book?