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.