Wednesday, 28 April 2010

How Could You Love Him After Only Three Days?

I was really looking forward to watching Zhang Yimou's follow-up to Hero, which I loved. But I was strangely nonplussed by it. Maybe my love of Hero built it up too much, or maybe some of the ideas of it had been done a little too often before, but House Of Flying Daggers didn't resonate with me as much as it apparently has with others.

In old China, law and order has fallen into disarray with the rising of the house of the Flying Daggers, a Robin Hood outfit dedicated to robbing the rich to help the poor. The government manages to capture a leader of the house, Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a blind girl with an uncanny knife-throwing ability. In order to try and find their way to the base of the Flying Daggers and, ultimately, to their new leader, the government instructs a police captain, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), to break her out of prison. With fellow captain Leo (Andy Lao), Jin is supposed to get Mei to lead them to the house. Leo organises staged ambushes to convince Mei of their authenticity while Jin and Mei are slowly falling for each other. Finally they make it to the house of the Flying Daggers, with a number of epic scenes and battles.

I must confess, the film is resoundingly beautiful. Truly stunning. The use of colours, especially the iconic green scene in the bamboo forest, is phenomenal, a complete shock to the senses in a totally good way. Ziyi Zhang is also very good, in addition to being stunningly beautiful. Of the men, Lao stood out for me as the better, more nuanced performance, while Kaneshiro didn't seem to have as many layers to his characterisation - it seemed much more surface and basic. He is, however, much the cuter.

The cinematography by Zhao Xiaoding was excellent, as noted, and rightly Oscar nominated, though I do to this day wonder how the amazing Christopher Doyle was overlooked for his work on Hero. Yimou seemed to get a little more epic in this love story than was entirely necessary, taking on from Hero and trying to one-up himself rather than just letting it ride the way it needed to, but such unnecessary grandeur can be mostly excused in a film such as this.

I guess, in the end, the elements seemed to work independently, but the film just didn't strike me in any great way. It was fine, I'm not going to knock it, I definitely enjoyed watching it, but looking back on it there is nothing in it other than the beauty of the scenery that really makes me remember it. But less than 3 stars seems wrong, so 3 stars it is.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

We Need To Be A Little More Constructive Here, Okay?

After watching the first Terminator film, I felt an almost overwhelming urge to watch the first sequel, that which filled so many days for me back in my childhood. And so watch it I did.

Like with series such as The Godfather and the Aliens series, the Terminator series is another where the second film is possibly better than the already acclaimed and successful lead-off. With Terminator 2: Judgement Day, I'm going to come right out and say that it is definitely better than the original. Set a number of years after the original, the 1991 film focuses on John Connor (Ed Furlong) and his mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton), with John as a rebellious juvenile in foster care, convinced his mother, now locked up in a mental facility, is crazy for her beliefs regarding her initial Terminator encounter.

However, when a second version of the initial Terminator who had been sent to kill his mother (Arnold Schwarzenneger reprising) comes after John he is quickly convinced, and the two set about escaping from the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a far more advanced terminator, rescuing Sarah and destroying the SkyNet software and hardware that enable the entire future to happen in the manner outlined by the Terminator.

Terminator 2 is far more action-packed and the effects really ramp it up. However, it is also a great story well told and well acted from all involved. Furlong does really well as the young kid (watching it I remembered the phenomenal crush I had on him when the film was still new - I would have been about the same age as he was in the film whilst this crush was going on, so I promise it wasn't anything untoward...) and Hamilton pulls in a stunning futuristic action fantasy performance on par with Sigourney Weaver's in the second Alien film (or Aliens as it is otherwise known...) Schwarzenneger has more lines but it is ostensibly the same characterless character, and Patrick is suitably unemotional and cold to watch.

James Cameron flexed his muscle with this film (at the time, the first film to cost more than US$100mil to produce) and showed that he is very strong when he's working with the right material, which is pretty much all he ever does. He cut his teeth with the first one, and rammed it home with the second. Everything works, which gives good reason to the fact that Terminator 2 won four Oscars from six nominations while the first won zero from zero (apparently the first and I believe only time a sequel has won an Oscar where the original hadn't even been nominated.) Truly entertaining from start to finish, 5 stars.

Friday, 23 April 2010

I Modified This Tube Sock.

Bit of a hiatus, but I went on a mini-break to Copenhagen, which turned into a much longer stay thanks to a certain Icelandic volcano spreading ash everywhere and causing a bit of a European airspace shutdown - you may have heard something about it. That's all right, trains and ferries saved the day.

Now, that doesn't mean I'm still not well behind. I am. I watched Fantastic Mr Fox a while ago, and I'm a little rusty on it because of that. But I know I liked it. I didn't love it, but I liked it. I think the vocal talent was very, very charismatic (with George Clooney doing his thing, and Meryl Streep showing that even without her physical presence, her comic timing is terrific.) I think it looked really cool - I loved the stop-motion, cute little characters and the production design of the whole thing. It didn't quite grab me, but it was a nice little romp. Jason Schwartzmann was hilariously petulant, Willem Dafoe was brilliantly disguised, Eric Chase Anderson held well against far more experienced cast, Bill Murray and Jarvis Cocker worked, Owen Wilson just made me think of Owen Wilson, and I'm not a huge Owen Wilson fan so...

Alexandre Desplat (who? Who's he? Oh, him) did great things with the score, unsurprisingly. It's really a pity he doesn't score more films than he does. What? He did seven scores for 2009 films? Lazy. He's scored five films I've seen in the last six months? Work harder, man!

Look, I'm not going to knock Wes Anderson, really. He at least goes for what he wants to do. You can feel his style, whether you love it or hate it. As I think I mentioned here, I liked his Life Aquatic, but from what I've seen of the rest of his work I'm a little ho-hum. But you do know what you're getting, and you must admit that that has things going for it. Still... 3.5 stars.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

I Like Pizzas Too, But I'm Not Going To Marry One.

Man, I remember first watching The Exorcist years ago and crapping myself. I’ve seen many horror films in my time, read many horror books, been through all that, but this film really, really terrified me. I still maintain it is one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen. (I think Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room was also one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, but for entirely different reasons.)

The book by the same name on which the film is based is similarly scary, though in a ‘I’m-in-the-dark-and-alone-and-it’s-silent-and-it’s-all-taking-place-in-my-head’ way. William Peter Blatty wrote the novel and the screenplay, winning an Oscar for the screenplay and getting another nomination for producing the film, which was directed by Willam Friedkin.
Ellen Burstyn plays actress Chris, mother of Regan (Linda Blair), who is possibly ill, having seizures and the like in Georgetown while Chris is shooting a movie nearby. A whole range of medical tests are conducted on poor young Regan, who is scared herself of what is happening, being as it is that she appears to be possessed, though medical theories ranges from multiple personality disorder to scarring of lobes in her brain - none of which they can actually find evidence for. Eventually, on the advice of a psychologist, she seeks advice on procuring an exorcism from the Catholic Church for her daughter. The medical logic behind this is that Regan appears to believe she is possessed by the devil, and that an exorcism could almost trick her into getting better if she believes it strongly enough.
To this end, Chris approaches Father Karras (Jason Miller), a psychologist and priest working near where Chris has been shooting. He tells her that exorcisms are an old rite that is not practised, but when forced goes to the Church in an attempt to see if they can’t help, even just along the psychological, if not religious lines. The church knows of a priest who has previously performed an exorcism, and summons Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to Gerogetown to work with Karras, despite Merrin’s old age and the enormous doubts Karras has as to the veracity of Regan’s possession - she is claiming to be inhabited by the Devil himself, rather than just your garden-variety demon as is the norm.
The pair of priests head on in to Regan’s room to begin the exorcism and are confronted by the enormous strength, both mentally and physically, of Regan and whatever it is that may or may not be possessing her (though by this point all involved do seem fairly well convinced that her protestations are reliable.) As the exorcism ends it does seem to become apparent that a demon of some sort, if not the devil himself, was residing within Regan’s young form, as it jumps from her to Karras and, in a moment of self-sacrifice to stop the spread of its evil, he throws himself from Regan’s window onto a steep flight of stairs, killing himself.
The start of the film is of Merrin in Iraq, participating in an archaeological dig, but from the moment the film kicks off back in Georgetown the horror begins, meaning that the film runs  almost all of its two hours with these terrifying possibilities forefront for the viewer. Regardless of the fact that the devil’s voice was dubbed by Mercedes McCambridge (she had to sue for credit and this is said to be largely responsible for Blair losing out on her Best Supporting Actress nomination to fellow young’un Tatum O’Neal), Blair’s performance is fairly stunning, considering what she had to do at such a tender age. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her rampaging sexuality and the violent crucifix masturbation sequence. 
Burstyn we all love, so I’m not even going to try and talk about how fabulous she is in her Oscar-nominated turn either. Miller, I think, could have been stronger - he was a fairly weak and passive presence for the most part - but von Sydow was terrifically forceful and dominant as the senior priest with all the knowledge and none of the fear.
The script is terrific, something you would hope coming from a good novel by the same writer, and Friedkin keeps the tension super-high for the duration. As much as you might laugh at the vomit or the jerkiness of the head turning or whatever, his ability to achieve so much with so little VFX is pretty terrific. Freezing the set, firing guns behind people to get startled reactions, slapping people to make them angry, breaking Burstyn’s coccyx - he did totally abuse his cast and crew, but damn they got a good movie out of it.
This would probably fit neatly in a top fifty of all time for me, maybe top thirty. I’ve never tried to think about it. Maybe I will someday. But the film has stuck with me since I first watched it, and will now stick with me with much more clarity. But next time, I’m watching it with someone whose arm I can cling to. 5 stars.

Your Clothes... Give Them To Me Now.

It suddenly dawned on me, reading something about Avatar the other day and the references to previous James Cameron movies, that I didn’t think I’d ever seen the original Terminator film from 1984. I know I’ve seen Terminator 2: Judgement Day numerous times. I think we had that one taped and would watch it over school holidays - it’s a great film. I also remember at the time thinking about the fact that I’d never seen the original, but it kept slipping my mind to actually check it out. Maybe I had seen it - I’d never know unless I checked out the DVD and revisited it.
Turns out, I’d never seen it. I’d never seen the original Terminator. I’ll be damned.

Cameron co-wrote and directed this breakout sci-fi smash, putting Arnold Schwarzenegger into probably his most famous role and making Linda Hamilton a household name. For a while. Hamilton plays Sarah Connor, soon to become mother of John Connor, father of the anti-machine resistance movement in the 2020s. The machines send a terminator (Schwarzenegger - man, that’s an irritating name to type out. Props to all journalists covering Californian politics) back in time to assassinate Sarah before she can give birth to their arch-nemesis John. The humans manage to sneak in someone to protect her also, sending back soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to make sure the terminator can’t have his way.
From this prospect comes a fairly typical action film with a love story undercurrent between Sarah and Kyle. Hopefully nothing is given away by giving away the fact, 26 years after the film’s initial release, that this love affair blossoms and is, in fact, the relationship that begets young John. So, John has sent his own father back in time to protect his mother, posing some intriguing and paradoxical circular ideas of how the past and future could possible interact considering neither the past nor the future could exist without the other. But how could John have sent Kyle back to save his mother if John in fact wouldn’t exist without Kyle having gone back? How could Kyle have begat John in what is, for him, the past if, without being sent back in time by John, who can’t actually exist considering the fact that Kyle isn’t sent back in time until John is, what 43 or something. See what I mean? Best not to think too hard about this and just enjoy the neat conclusions.
It is a rollicking romp or a film. Hamilton is soft and gentle, stepping up rarely and quite emotional throughout the film, really relying on Kyle to see her through the trauma of being pursued by Schwarzenegger’s fairly impressive force. Cameron knows how to keep his stories rolling, and even at this time shows an adeptness with special effects. Sure, they look clunky compared to what could be achieved now, but this was almost three decades ago! Give the man some credit. It’s pretty damned impressive. Schwarzenegger, for his part, plays the role perfectly, considering he doesn’t need to do much more than hulk around and shoot stuff, muttering the occasional dry line of not-really-dialogue, and by nature of his being can’t really exhibit much in the way of expression. Biehn, who must have been quite the heartthrob back in the 80s considering I found him very attractive now despite the hairdo, was suitably dramatic and mysteriously knowing with his representations to Sarah.
All in all, it’s a good film. I knew the story of it, just from picking it up from the sequel and word of mouth, so it was no revelation of understanding as to the story of the terminator and the second installment. But it was nice to finally see it, an enjoyable action film that isn’t as good as the second one but is a tidy little start. 4 stars.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Can't Wait!

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are lesbian parents to Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson when sperm donor biological father Mark Ruffalo comes into the picture? Sounds pretty awesome to me! The Kids Are All Right sadly doesn't seem to have a UK release date yet. Which makes me want to hurt myself. But it's out in the States in July. So maybe I'll just fly over.

You Know Mr Gorbachev, The Guy That Ran Russia For So Long?

I can never really work out whether I think To Die For is overrated or underrated. I quite enjoy it, but is it actually good? All of the camp theatrics of the film - are they deliberate overplays designed almost to function in a Brechtian way, to stop you really relating to the characters and instead forcing you to analyse them critically? Or are they kind of just overplays. I'm tending to go with the former. I'm thinking I like the film.

Nicole Kidman plays Suzanne, a beautiful girl with no real talents but a true desire to succeed. She badgers her way on screen as a weather reporter for a local news station, and is constantly winning over her husband Larry (Matt Dillon) to get her way - manipulating him into submission is probably a more accurate way to describe her actions. Larry wants Suzanne to take time off her climbing of the corporate ladder in order to start a family, something Suzanne is not keen on. To this end, she begins a project with schoolkids and lures three of the dumbest and most hick into her trap. 

Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix) is the ringleader, probably the dumbest, and Suzanne seduces him one night at her house. Russel (Casey Affleck) seems to be a bit smarter but still follows Jimmy around as his foil, while Lydia (Alison Folland) idolises Suzanne and seems to have no one else to hang around with than the two brutes - I believe after rewatching To Die For that Lydia is in fact a lesbian, in love with Suzanne, unsure of how to deal with her teenage feelings in a small American town. Suzanne ends up bribing and cajoling the kids to off Larry, which they do, before Suzanne turns her backs on them and pretends to know nothing about it - she is let off from her charges due to entrapment technicalities employed by the police in gathering evidence against her. She thinks she has won, but in the end she does not, something shown with a great little cameo from David Cronenberg.

Kidman won her first Golden Globe for her terrific performance, combining devious planning with ditzy actions and making herself endlessly creepy yet undeniably watchable. Dillon played the shallow role of the husband well also - it wasn't much of a stretch in terms of complexity of character, and the camped nature of his performance suited his strengths. Affleck was strong in a small role, and Folland did decent work with her confused character (she is probably my weakest link in the cast, however), while Phoenix did terrific things with his down and dirty portrayal of someone who may in fact be on the verge of a medical diagnosis of mild retardation. His character allowed for the deepest character representation in a real sense on screen, and he grabbed hold of it and made it work for him. No wonder he went on to become the great performer he has since been recognised as.

The script from Buck Henry (based on the book by Joyce Maynard) was very clever, and the dialogue and narration from Suzanne was written perfectly. Director Gus Van Sant let the film take itself along, giving it a quirk but leaving it decidedly more accessible to the mainstream than his earlier works. He seems to dip in and out of mainstream in phases - following To Die For he ran around and made such films as Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting, before dropping out again for the Death Trilogy (here and here), and now seems to be in and out much faster - Milk was serious yet commercial but upcoming Restless looks like it may play more akin to Paranoid Park.

Anyway, I've distracted myself. I like it. I do. 4 stars.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010


Aah, François Truffaut. Like his Cahiers du Cinema stablemate Jean-Luc Godard he did so much to bring the French New Wave to the world, though he abandoned so many of its most distinctive qualities after only his second attempt at the helm, following the Cannes acclaim and Oscar nomination of his breakout success Les Quatre Cent Coups

Truffaut struggled to find financing for his followup feature Tirez Sur Le Pianiste, instead opting to pretty much shoot it on the fly, employing the characteristics of the Nouvelle Vague as much by necessity as by choice, one must imagine. Charlie (Charles Aznavour) is a pianist, playing tunes in a piano bar, when his brother, Chico (Albert Rémy) enters, chased by two gangsters. It turns out Charlie is not, in fact, Charlie, but Eduard Saroyan, a previously acclaimed concert pianist whose life turned upside down after the suicide of his wife. It also turns out that his family consists almost entirely of criminals, a world he is being drawn back into.

At the same time, a waitress at the bar, Léna (Marie Dubois) is falling in love with him, something Charlie is reciprocating. Whilst on the run, the two escape together, winding up at a farmhouse in the country where Chico and the rest of Charlie's brothers are hiding out, before a fatal final scene.

It's an interesting film, a nice little addition to the movement, holding out in the minds of cineastes despite the cool critical and commercial reception upon the film's release. It is this reception, in fact, that apparently inspired Truffaut to give up on the improvised and loose style so employed by him and his contemporaries, instead moving into the realm of scripted, budgeted and more mainstream cinema that saw such films as La Nuite Américaine spring forth. Not that he gave them up entirely, but rather that he moderated them into something more palatable for audiences of the time.

In Tirez, however, the jump cuts are still there, the leaps in time and narrative, the occasional lack of coherence and the use of real spaces within which to set the narrative - he's still shooting from the hip here. And it does work to a degree. Making it up as you go along is always a dangerous game to play, as it doesn't allow for a great deal of reflection and finessing. Instead, you're lumped with what you've already got and you have to work everything around what was thought yesterday, despite the constraints of today. To that extent, I think Truffaut may well have got lucky with being able to create a narrative as cohesive as he did here. Either that, or he is perhaps the most gifted storyteller and director to yet front this earth. While I think he is truly talented, I believe some of the further most definitely comes into play.

But, one cannot judge for luck. The performances are solid, centred as they are around Aznavour, Rémy and Dubois, who all hold it together nicely. Raoul Coutard, who acquitted himself so well with À Bout De Souffle, does a stellar job here, with many dark, noir-ish scenes where I'm sure he had very little to work with. Truffaut may well have pulled this out of his arse, but what was up there was a pretty fine film. 4 stars.

Don't Married People Tell Each Other Everything?

Meh, another meh. Though it was my second Bruno Ganz film in a day, which is always exciting. I don't think I'd ever seen him in anything other than Der Untergang until I got around to watching Gillian Armstrong's 1992 Australian film The Last Days Of Chez Nous.

Vicki (Kerry Fox) returns from travelling to stay with her sister Beth (Lisa Harrow), her French husband JP (Ganz) and their daughter Annie (Miranda Otto.) They're all happy being back together again, though Vicki's 'free spirit' type attitude towards life starts to grate, though not on JP who finds himself falling for her. While Beth and her father (Bill Hunter) are out on a road trip so that Beth can confront him about why they never get along, Vicki and JP start to play, mirrored by Annie's first romantic blossomings with a lodger staying with the family.

It's very much a naturalistic film, doing away with melodrama and major dramatic plot points, climaxes or confrontations in favour of just showing it how it is. Maybe it's something to do with me and naturalism, then, after The Child. Maybe I just don't really like it in its natural form. Because I didn't find anything particularly interesting about Chez Nous. It just kind of muddled along and didn't seem to do a great deal. I didn't feel a great deal for the characters, with the possible exception of Beth, whom Harrow did a great job of adding nuance and texture to, and by the end I thought Vicki was pretty selfish. JP really gets away easily in the eyes of the viewer, playing the European card making you think it's not totally his fault, it's a matter of breeding, or some such tripe.

Helen Garner's script seemed a little bland, and then a little over the top in parts too, not fitting in with what she had already set down. The performances were actually fairly good, despite the fact that they didn't make me feel much. Fox went through fine, but it was Otto, Ganz and Harrow who sang for me. Hunter was Hunter - he always is, let's be honest. Geoffrey Simpson (who has done some terrific work - let's not talk about Glitter) lenses fine, keeping it real and natural like it's all meant to be. It's just a bit boring.

All in all, it felt like a bit of a nothing film again. Perhaps there's a feminist reading or something that I'm missing. But as it stands, it's 2 stars. Sorry Gillian.

(I also can't find a decent still of it. So it's not getting one.)

Monday, 5 April 2010

You Must Be On Stage When The Curtain Falls.

I truly and honestly believe that Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler in the 2004 German film Der Untergang is one of the greatest performances I've ever seen on screen. I also think that a lot of that comes from his (and director Oliver Hirshbiegel's) courage in showing Hitler not as a maniacal monster, inhuman and something akin to the devil, but rather as a real person. They humanised Hitler, but without letting you feel sympathetic towards what he did. Rather, you leave the film recognising that, yes, he and those around him were truly awful people who committed unspeakable atrocities and who should burn in the darkest recesses of hell forever, but they were just people who inspired such fervent following amongst their people through a steadfast and passionate belief in what they were doing. That their beliefs were disgusting is irrelevant here - they were willing to die for what they stood for, and that allows comparisons to be drawn to any story where a protagonist might follow his heart and beliefs against the grain of society.

Please do realise that I am in no way trying to condone everything that Nazi Germany is responsible for. But I do think that demonising the perpetrators to a point where they lose any semblance of actually being 'ordinary' people is counterproductive to any attempts to sway people from similar beliefs. In the same way that extraordinary actions can see mere mortals lifted to the level of demi-god or near-deity, serious and prolonged damning can achieve the same thing in reverse. Rather than lifting them to the status of saints you are dropping them the world of Satan's right hand men, but you are still lifting them onto a pedestal of sorts from where it becomes feasible to worship them in much the same way if you are of the crazed persuasion that lends itself in that direction.

Der Untergang (Downfall) is the story of the last days of Hitler in his bunker in Berlin as the Allied and Soviet forces decimate his own armies and get closer and closer to bringing about the inevitable collapse of the Third Reich. Hitler and his cohorts Goebbels, Himmler et al, with families, troops, employees and cohorts, are locked in their underground home as bombs fall outside and their world comes crumbling down around them. But they hold strong to their beliefs, despite the looming deaths of almost all remaining soldiers and civilians - Hitler's stance is that they are better off dead than living in a world where he is not ruler. They occupants try to hold strong to the life they were living, keeping up appearances and obeying the Führer, even as his orders become more and more ridiculous and his grasp on the calamity fast arriving seems slippery. He is ordering battalions that do not exist or exist only in very reduced form to advance or encircle or march on a front that they can never reach. His advisers and generals live in fear of him, knowing that it is suicide for them all but unable to convince him calmly otherwise, therefore getting on with his lunatic orders for fear that they will be accused of treason and summarily executed.

As the day of defeat becomes apparent, many of the inhabitants seek refuge in suicide, with some going so far as to see that their children are also removed from the equation - something that may almost be more humane than the memory that their parents were named Goebbels and they sang for the biggest mass murderer in memory. Grueling days and trying nights end in history happening exactly as we remember (unlike the revisionist retelling from Tarantino with Inglourious Basterds), with the burning bodies of the leaders of the regime and a surrender resulting in a forty-odd year of Berlin division.

Ganz is truly phenomenal. He doesn't let up, not for a second. His afflictions and weaknesses are there on show even as he parades his power and screams for more. His supports complement him, though nothing can ever match the furious force of the marauding Hitler.

Hirschbiegel somehow manages to make the film itself feel calm as everything happens within it, limiting any serious flourishes to allow the atrocious behaviour of the Nazis and the glory of the performance to cut right through the coldly beautiful cinematography of Rainer Klausmann. Der Untergang ends as a terrifying document of terrible ideas executed so well for so long before thankfully falling in a sad and deadly heap. It is a tremendously powerful film, one that is not easily forgotten.

I remember seeing it in cinemas with my mother. She didn't really like it, though she could appreciate the technical elements. While she was not alive in WWII, both of her parents served in some capacity within it - her mother remaining in Australia and I believe working in telegraphs as the Japanese threat on Sydney became very apparent, while her father served in Africa, Asia and (I think...) a little in Europe. She said it all felt a bit close, and that the way the story was told (ie with Hitler as a person rather than a monster) made it very hard for her to watch. And I can understand that, for those close, it would be a very difficult film. But for those of us that weren't close, it is an important film, precisely to remind us that he was a person, because with all that is now written about the man and the regime, he is becoming more like folklore and myth and less like the person who once lived next door. 

5 stars.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

I Want You With Me, That's All.

After the reasonably cool reception Fur: An Imaginary Portrait Of Diane Arbus received, both critically and commercially, I wasn't expecting anything particularly spellbinding, but in the end I was quite taken with Steven Shainberg's follow up to Secretary. It's a very, very different film to his breakout indie smash from a few years earlier.

As the title would suggest, the film is not a biography of the acclaimed American photographer. Taking a biographical novel as its source material, Fur reimagines what might have created and inspired the woman behind the photographs, what might have made her the artist she became. Nicole Kidman stars as Diane, married to Alan (Ty Burrell), a studio photographer. A man, Lionel (Robert Downey Jr) moves in upstairs from where the pair live and work, but he is not really a man to begin with - he is an enigma in a mask, eyes and mouth peering out. 

Shortly after his arrival, Diane decides that she wishes to make use of the camera her husband has given her. Alan has encouraged her to pursue her own art, and she frames her desire as a project to photograph her neighbours, though she is really drawn to the mystery of Lionel. Upon convincing him to let him into her home she discovers the man behind the mask. Lionel is covered in hair, a victim of a rare condition that has seen him make quite a living as a circus freak, meaning his friends are also of that vocation - dwarves, women without arms and the like. Rather than fear, repulsion or disgust, Diane is fascinated by him. The two are drawn together as she attempts to construct in her mind how the portrait can be best imagined, all the while taking photos of his door and nothing else. As their relationship grows Alan discovers these rolls of film, helped by his and Diane's children who are noticing that their mother is growing increasingly distant both emotionally and physically. Shocked he confronts his wife, but also on some levels understands the infatuation, which may or may not be true love, and rather than trying to put a stop to the exercise allows it to continue. Lionel, however, is dying. And Diane does not yet have her portrait.

There has been talk over the last few months about Nicole Kidman and her place in the last decade. I have read a number of people both stating and repeating the statements of others acclaiming her as the actress of the decade. This is not necessarily saying that she was the best of the noughties, but rather that, in her choices of roles, she proved herself to be one of the most interesting and intriguing. And yes, look at what she has done and who she has chosen to work with. A musical by Baz Luhrmann. A quasi-experimental theatrical take on the American mid-west with Lars Von Trier. A Russian prostitute. An Anthony Minghella epic. Remakes, thrillers, animations. Watching her hasn't always paid off, but it has always kept you guessing, and for this I wholeheartedly agree with much of what is said. I, for one, have always been in camp Kidman. And this role, a risk if ever there was one, adds to that mystique. Taking on the role of an artist as almost entirely imagined through the surrealistic eye of Shainberg and his writer Erin Cressida Wilson is a risky undertaking, but she pursues it with gusto. And the work she puts in is terrific, perfectly suited to the aloof and psychologically delicate nature of Diane.

Robert Downey Jr is an actor I can't quite get my head around. I'm not entirely sure what I think of him. I think he has a lot of charisma, but I always know when I'm watching him, even when he is covered head to toe in long, thick hair. I think his charisma definitely suited this part, which needed someone you could believe Diane would be so enamoured with, but I still thought it was Robert Downey Jr.

The visuals in the film were quite striking, taking some influence from Arbus' work, but combining them with the aforementioned surreal edge. Once upstairs everything takes on a strange edge, not quite planted in reality. Reflecting the fact that the two characters are in no small way unsure not only of themselves, but of each other and the situation they find themselves, the look of the production and the nature of how they are shown is all a little off-kilter, keeping you slightly off-balance. And it works a treat.

Fur is a very, very interesting idea and the outcome was a valiant effort at trying something new. Did it work in every way? No. It all remained a little distant, not quite hitting the viscera, staying put in the intellect. But, in keeping with where Kidman has spent her last decade, it was very, very interesting. 3.5 stars.

I'm Just Mad 'Cause I Suck.

And she does! It's true. The title for this post was almost 'I'll Suck Your Dick If You Give Me The Job I Want', but I decided against it... instead putting it in the opening paragraph. Yeah!

Sherry (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who we love, remember) is the reformed addict of the title, SherryBaby, fresh out of prison and on a curfew, moving into a halfway house filled with other women in similar situations. All she wants is her baby, Alexis (Ryan Simpkins - seriously, are the Simpkins' the new Fannings? This is the fourth film after Revolutionary Road, Little Children and A Single Man that one or both have been in) back, who is currently living with her brother, Bobby (Brad William Henke) and his wife Lynette (Bridget Barkan.) Bobby is happy that Sherry is out, but Lynette is less than pleased, especially when Sherry, in anger and frustration at the halfway house and those who living inside it, decides to decamp to their place in New Jersey. Bobby's rule is that there are to be no drugs in the house, but Lynette just wants her gone, and isn't afraid to turn Alexis against her mother.

Sherry and Bobby's father Bob Sr (Sam Bottoms) visits with his new wife and they give Sherry a drink, not realising that all addiction is her problem, not just the heroin they recognise. Sherry gets emotional but while being comforted by her father he touches her breast - Sherry, not apparently upset by this, but by everything in general, leaves and goes out to score. She uses before turning up to her AA meeting under the influence, helped by her friend Dean (Danny Trejo), who takes her home and helps her to clean up. Meanwhile, Sherry has moved out of her brother's house and into a motel, where her parole office visits. She confesses she has been using, and pleads for outpatient rehab treatment - she is told that her only options are inpatient or jail. He gives her the weekend to decide, and she takes Alexis on a mini-golfing bonding trip, only to take her over the border on her way to escaping to Florida - though she never makes it all the way.

Gyllenhaal's performance is powerful in a movie that is otherwise only a little better than average. As the conflicted, addicted mother she turns a treat, over the top and attention craving as you can see that her weakness is still very much there, not really hidden under the surface, instead gripping her powerfully in its claws as she badly tries to ignore it. You can see that her only real desire to get clean is to stay with her daughter. Being clean in itself doesn't overly appeal to her - she hasn't been rehabilitated to that extent - and if Alexis weren't around I'm sure she would have been back on the dope much faster than it took for her to finally succumb. But Alexis is a powerful incentive - though not immediately powerful enough.

Henke is very good as her long-suffering but devoted brother, showing her uncompromising love and support despite how much she has screwed up in the past. His love for Alexis as his own is touching, and his ability to calmly ignore the protestations of his spouse in favour of the blood relationship never offends Lynette. He manages to respect his wife without alienating his sister, and Henke is in a big way responsible for this split.

The remainder of the supports are small roles that are pulled off perfectly fine. The film itself, however, seems to kind of travel along quietly without really seeming to get somewhere. As a portrait of addiction and desire it works fine, but without any redemption or closure it just feels a little hollow. In the end, it ends up feeling a bit empty, unfinished. But for debut writer/director Laurie Collyer, it's a reasonably good start. I'm sure she has a lot left in her. 3 stars.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

To Anyone In The UK.

Tomorrow, the massively acclaimed, Camera d'Or winning, multiple AFI and IF Award winning Australian box office hit Samson And Delilah hits cinemas around this little island nation. Oh, it was shortlisted for the Foreign Language Oscar also. A few months back I did my little write-up of acclaimed short director Warwick Thornton's debut feature, and it was a 5 star occasion. It's truly beautiful, and the images have stuck around. GO OUT AND SEE IT! It's performance in its home country proved it was an audience hit (it opened well considering the fact that it is a little Australian film and wasn't on that many screens) and went on to something in the region of a 22 times multiplier on its opening - that means the word of mouth was hella strong. And with the Australian and British sensibilities being so similar, I'm thinking it's going to crossover quite well. Besides, there's hardly anything spoken in it, it all comes across without something so antiquated as 'dialogue', so anyone should be able to get it pretty damn easily.

Seriously. Check it out. There's some more info on the film here. But it's playing in a bunch of major cities, with a number of London locations. Go. Now.

Ahem. Shameless plug number 1.