Saturday, September 27, 2008

Out of the Water and Into the Groove

On Thursday I saw Lina Wertmüller's steamy, sensuous Swept Away, several months after watching Madonna and Guy Ritchie's 2002 attempts to revive it. A skewed approach, I know, but in an attempt to illustrate how the two compare, I've split the films up into six elements and given my opinion on which film has the edge. Let the bout begin!

Round One: Lina Wertmüller Vs. Guy Ritchie

In pinpointing just how beastly Raffaela is, and the contempt she generates within Gennarino, the two have different visual approaches. Wertmüller's feels much more natural in its flair, the camera almost acting as a vulture circling the boat, antagonising and constructing their relationship as politically and socially poles apart, but uniting them somehow in their volatility. The further Gennarino strays from Rafaella the easier it is to see their underlying similarities, finely orchestrated in a late-night scene in which they are alone on deck. Metres apart from each other their temperament is placid, comfortable and contented, their eye-contact good, but there is no attempt (and almost a fear) to bridge this gap, almost as if they will explode when breaching a certain level of proximity.

By contrast, Ritchie's way of expressing their mutual resentment of each other seems to rely more on rhythm and pace, using its jazzy-continental score (which reminded me a lot of 80's TV theme-tunes) to create quite a light and successfully comic tone to the first half of the film. As time goes on however, it's clear that Richie has a rather romanticised view of Swept Away, which isn't necessarily wrong but is a limited one compared with Wertmüller's attempts years earlier. Ritchie's flashy moments of direction come with beach clinches and melodramatic displays of affection, and a moment that rivals Match Point's over-the-top slow-motion ring sequence. Wertmüller is able to implore a lot more visual mood into her version, and with an extra twenty-five minutes of running time, feels much more in control of her film than Guy does.

Result: Lina Wertmüller

Round Two: Mariangela Melato Vs. Madonna

Whichever language Wertmüller's Swept Away gets dubbed in there's no way it can be mistaken for anything other than an Italian film. Mariangela Melato's Raffaela is a fiery vixen of a woman: a right wing monster, a ruthless, power-hungry socialite, a sexual inferno. Her journey from riches to emotional tatters and primordial back-to-basics is a sensational arc to behold, and that's because of Melato's unflinching charisma and passion. Her dramatics are always so watchable, and as a woman who has spent the first half of the film being horrendous, her about-turn feels convincing in the context of Raffaela and Gennarino's tempestuous relationship. A major, major feat.

But what of Madonna? Well, where to begin? I have a lot of sympathy for her as an Actress. Her daring, knows-no-bounds attitude works well with music, but when attempting to re-create a role that a) has been done so well before, b) has always been trashy, c) is completely unsympathetic, and d) is actually incredibly complex, was inevitably going to bring her a lot of stick. I'm sure the fact that she's Italian-born, and was a teenager at the time of the original release, had a lot to do with Ritchie making the film in the first place, and in theory, the rich diva role could be something she's well-suited to. But after seeing the original a lot of the performance feels more like whining mimicry than inherent power struggle. Her Amber seems more of a pouting fake, a calculating shallow shrew, than someone capable of being psychologically turned inside-out. If Madonna's Swept Away had kept to its original ending then this could perhaps be more of an understandable acting move, but as it turns out, it makes their love story a perplexing and altogether less genuine commodity.

Result: Mariangela Melato

Round Three: Giancarlo Giannini Vs. Adriano Giannini

Like father, like son. Unsurprisingly, this pair is the most difficult to separate, as essentially their genes speak for themselves, but there are a couple of crucial things the young pretender does not possess. One of these is raw, neanderthal sexual necessity. Adriano has a better body than his father did in 1974, but it doesn't matter. A clinical, chiseled physique works against Adriano in the sense that it doesn't feel like the natural, manly, uncaring brute that Gennarino is, and despite being an adonis to lust over, you don't get the impression that he'd ravage you anywhere near as lustfully as Giancarlo's predatory prowess indicates.

Result: Giancarlo Giannini

Round Four: 1974 Sex Vs. 2002 Sex

A similar story to comparing the men, really. 2002's version sees two beautiful people (perhaps too beautiful?) writhing around in sexual fulfillment, but lacks the bite of the original. What made the sex in Wertmüller's original so erotically charged was that it was both angry and lusty, whereas Madonna and Adriano's encounters, while arousing, are all a bit (for lack of a better word) pretty. What I will say for the remake is that its sex scenes are incredibly well-shot (adhering to the fervent romanticism of Ritchie to which I earlier referred) which when considering the original is high praise indeed.

Result: 1974 Sex

Round Five: 1974 Politics Vs. 2002 Politics

This is where I feel very let down by Guy Ritchie. Watching the remake before the original was in some ways a mistake, but was also quite enlightening when comparing the two. I didn't get the psychology behind the characters because Ritchie makes an effort to whittle and dumb everything down to a trashy love story, rather than showing off the attractive Italian passion evident in 1974. The characters debate communism, fascism, marxism, and really possesses a social consciousness that gives the extremes of Rafaella and Gennarino's relationship a political edge and subsequently a comprehendable dynamic. If you're planning on watching the two films, please opt for the original first.
Result: 1974 Politics

Round Six: 1974 Ending Vs. 2002 Ending
Warning: Spoilers!

The feeling you're left with after watching Raffaela fly off in a helicopter, unable to bring herself to be the Lady that runs off with the common sailor, is a wretched one. It feels natural to want a film to have this sweeping fairy-tale ending but in actual fact the film makes so much more sense (in terms of society, politics, holiday romances themselves) than riding off into the sunset ever would have done, and so I salute Wertmüller for a harsh ending that I imagine didn't go down all that well at the time. Something tells me that Madonna herself probably didn't like the idea of that ending, and creative licence sees 2002's Swept Away get carried away with romance a little too much. It can't bring itself to kick Gennarino to the curb fully, and instead kicks them both to the curb by having them both mistakenly think that the other cannot go through with the romance. A sinking ring, and frankly a sinking moment in an otherwise passable remake.

Result: 1974 Ending

Overall Score: 6 - 0 (A landslide)

Guy Ritchie's Swept Away may be inferior in every aspect but please don't let this put you off watching it. It's an alright imitation of an excellent, excellent film. Misguided but admirable, and one of Madonna's better performances, not that that's saying much I know.

1974 Version
- A
2002 Version - C+

R.I.P Paul Newman [1925-2008]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Girls A-Live

However much I love Girls Aloud I wasn't expecting this to turn into a "celebrate the music of Girls Aloud" week on the blog. Not content with having them as my hottest track this week I just have to link you to the live lounge they did for Radio 1 this morning. They sing both The Promise and a cover of Apologise by One Republic & Timabaland. They're both awesome performances. Enjoy.

Here you can see a video of them singing Apologise, and listen to a recording of the entire session.

Scroll to 2:14 for The Promise
Scroll to 2:38 for interview and Apologise

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Another Brick in the Wall

Eden Lake (2008)
Directed by James Watkins
Starring: Kelly Reilly, Michael Fassbender, Jack O'Connell
Grade: C -

For you non-Brits, the topic of "What to do about our pesky teenagers, and their relaxed attitude to physical violence?" is a particularly hot one in the country right now. Eden Lake, a British production, spawns from such debate, and so the basic premise of the film is that a young couple, away for a romantic weekend, find themselves on the wrong end of a violent dispute with a gang of tearaway youths. You might think I reviewed this film a couple of weeks ago but no. While The Strangers was a classy crafted genre-gem, Eden Lake has much bigger things on its mind, and isn't afraid to let everyone know it.

It's quite obvious from the outset that Eden Lake knows exactly what it wants to say and won't stop until its said it. Car-radio debates about the problems of youth in today's society fill the eerie opening credits; a precursor to the violent events that unfold, and the film's desire to confront the issue in gung-ho mode is an admirable one. But Eden Lake's bandwagon-jumping often feels like the intrusive, impetuous commentary of filmmakers with passion but little understanding of how to build a convincing narrative around this passion. Indeed, the problem is that as such a politically-divisive piece, the film is first and foremost a social demonstration and secondarily a gritty thriller. Every eventuality (whether it be a chase, hiding place, violent sequence, stumble) feels like it's been copied from, and done better in, other films.

It isn't as if Eden Lake doesn't attempt to get inside its characters, or show us why they might do the things they do. There are thoughtful glimpses into, particularly, the most volatile and disturbed member of the young group. The character of Brett (outstandingly played by Jack O'Connell) is very much the leader of events, and attempting to display and allude to the reasons behind his anger and instability works for the film's message about young people and crime. But the reason Eden Lake gave me a major headache was the treatment of its would-be protagonists (couple Steve and Jenny), who act frankly rather stupidly at times, and on more than one occasion are responsible for orchestrating their own downfall. It feels as if the filmmakers are working from a couple of plot points -- incidentally based solely around the youths and delivering the message of the film -- and the rest is left to part-cliche, part-mess, in which we have no idea as to the scope of Eden Lake as a location and its endless, tiresome expanse of forestry.

It's difficult. I agree with a lot of what Eden Lake tries to say, and ultimately cannot fail to say. But when you have a small checklist and ninety minutes of running time to fill, things can easily become bogged down. Eden Lake is predictable after the first thirty, loses grip in the second thirty, and finally falls apart in a finale that's effective, haunting, and probably plausible, but by the time it comes around feels well on the way to its second dose of overkill.

Hottest Track: Girls Aloud - The Promise

Monday, September 22, 2008

This Sex Is On Fire...

It's about time. Finally, here is the trailer for headline-grabbing, Titanic re-uniting, major Oscar buzzing Revolutionary Road. One of the most famous romantic pairings captured on celluloid, Winslet and Di Caprio, return, and the chemistry is still RED HOT. Yummy-looking love scenes littered throughout it appears that instead of a sinking ship to contend with, restless suburbia is the thing getting this particular relationship down. I have to admit that this hardly seems a jolly time at the cinema, and it's a bit of a repetitive trailer all-in-all, but I suppose trailers don't win Oscars. Let's wait and see.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Barrymore Case

Oscar's Supporting Actress category is a funny one, isn't it? While quabbles and analyses on this topic are better left to the master of said category, two recent blockbuster rentals have collectively compelled me to lodge a few comments regarding a couple of bewildering inclusions on the Academy shortlist, both involving the same woman.

The first of these films is Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase, a gothic-style thriller about a serial killer who preys on girls with disabilities. Although there's plenty of dramatic flair about the proceedings the nature of the story (six people in a house seemingly waiting for the threat of death to besiege them) reads as very uninspired. Add to that a frustratingly vague old woman and a romance that stutters but never really starts and that's pretty much that. A film much too reliant upon its thrilling aesthetics.

The other film is Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case, which begins with a woman arrested for the murder of her blind husband, and eventually leads to her trial, conducted by lawyer Gregory Peck, who himself is smitten with the alleged murderess. What struck me most about the film is its resounding feminist stance -- a point which I realise is contradictory of Hitchcock's reputation in general, but one that nevertheless is undoubtedly valid. Essentially though, The Paradine Case is very predictable, and, similarly to The Spiral Staircase doesn't really have enough avenues in its narrative borough to sustain interest.

The comparisons between the two are evident. Each of their titles ends in "case", both are forties pictures -- 1945 and 1947 respectively -- and each of them are essentially about murder. But their sole Oscar nominations, both for Supporting Actress Ethel Barrymore, is the comparison I want to discuss.

In Staircase Barrymore is that frustratingly vague old woman to which I earlier referred. As bed-ridden Mrs. Warren she writhes like an elephant on a trampoline for most of the film, pausing only to utter clairvoyant-style comments about the serial killer or death in general and to spit scathing insults at her bemused staff. She plays to her status as a mysterious know-all with uncertainty and quite erratically, to the point where I started to question just why she's in the film at all. This becomes clearer in Staircase's final moments; her role in a dramatic conclusion surely the nomination-winner, even if the scene itself feels like a chilli atop a blancmange.

But for Barrymore's kick-ass moment her nomination would be for very little indeed, but there are no kick-ass moments in her Paradine Case turn, which makes Beatrice Straight's efforts in Network look titanic. As wife of Laughton's grumpy judge, she features in just three scenes (only two of which she speaks), which equates to a meagre four minutes of screen time. Her contribution in these few moments comprises mainly of a scene at the very end, in which she's berated by her husband for showing compassion towards a questionable figure. This, coupled with an earlier scene which marks her as slightly loopy (if totally unrelatable and again, erratic), tars her with the sympathy brush. But the role is such a non-statement, and the performance isn't even memorable in an over-the-top sense, altogether constituting probably the least amount of ability I've seen in an Oscar-nominated performance.

I don't intend to be so mean about Ethel Barrymore. These two performances represent my only view of a very reputable Actress, and certainly a very limited one at that, but as nominated performances they really don't cut the mustard. So how did they make the shortlist? In The Spiral Staircase Barrymore's role has a bit of bait, but not compared to Dorothy McGuire's mute lead role. Despite being lead this could easily have managed a place in the Supp Actress lineup (think Patty Duke's shocking category fraud as a disabled girl in The Miracle Worker), and is backed up by a comic turn from Hermione Baddeley which has got more going for it than Barrymore's stiff upper-lip. The only two explanations I can possibly give for her Paradine nod is that:-
  • A) It was a weak year, and the fact that it ended in "case" reminded them that they'd thought her worthy before.
  • B) That this piece of information (taken from IMDB Trivia) holds the key:-

In Hitchcock's rough cut and 131 minutes version, Ethel Barrymore can be seen as a half-crazed wife of Lord Horfield played by Charles Laughton. But David O. Selznick removed these scenes in the final editing and the final runtime was only 114 minutes.

Does anyone know if the Academy were screened the rough cut of The Paradine Case? Wouldn't this explain why they valued Barrymore's performance and thought it substantial enough to nominate?


Hottest Track: VV Brown - Crying Blood

Without doubt one of the catchiest songs I've heard in years! Enjoy!

Friday, September 12, 2008

93. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)

Directed by Sydney Pollack
Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Gig Young, Susannah York, Red Buttons

As it states at the beginning of the trailer to Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses Don't They?, people are the ultimate spectacle. Jane Fonda's Gloria wants to be part of a spectacle, travelling to Hollywood in the hope of becoming an actress. All she gets is a place in a marathon dance contest, offering the top prize of $1,500 in the midst of depression-era America.

This isn't the first film to be critical of the 'American dream' and it sure as hell won't be the last, but you'll be hard-pushed to find one so unevenly extreme in its treatment of an aspiring young breed of characters. The participants of the contest live through the cheapened descent that entertainment has undergone, their health, tolerance, and strength sapped with every waltz and jive. It's admittedly more suffering than you're likely to see on television nowadays but there are interesting parallels to reality-TV and talent shows that crush ambitious youngsters all too easily.

A recent first viewing of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? brought this film back to the forefront of my mind. As well as both being titular questions they each feature long sequences of testing character interaction, and as such are a real acting showcase. Horses garnered three acting nominations, and a Supporting Actor win for the devilishly handsome Gig Young. Young is excellent, but the real standout is Jane Fonda, in what is my favourite performance of hers. The ever-charismatic star is the character who really gauges the political situation, and understands that the contest is indicative of this. Her character's apparent awareness of Horses' themes yet inability to rise above the entire debacle the biggest tragedy, Fonda's Gloria reads like a fame-hungry gambler that just can't stop. But the question remains as to whether her fate is a tragic one, or a perverse victory. Watch it, and decide for yourself.

Hottest Track: Laura Marling - Night Terror

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Strangers (Bertino, 2008)

The Strangers
Directed by Bryan Bertino
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Glenn Howerton
Grade: B+

There are many things that can dismantle a relationship. From the moment Kristen McKay (Tyler) and James Hoyt (Speedman) fade into vision through a rain-splattered car windscreen, it's apparent things aren't too cosy at the inn. That this should come after an opening narration about the authenticity of the events on show and a recording of a frantic 911 call (effectively two immediate disruptions) unsettles without the main characters ever having spoken a word. It's a sign of things to come for The Strangers, which continually takes you out of your comfort zone. As unrelenting and merciless as the 'strangers' themselves.

As for the 'strangers', their cameo is a slow, drawn-out one, and is as much an intrusion on the couple's relationship as it is a threat to their lives. Upon return rose petals and champagne are greeted with tension and disdain; a proposal shunned, a celebration tempered, and so what's interrupted is more frosty fall-out than suburban bliss. To the film's credit, as danger is foisted upon them the couple never overtly put their issues to bed, and there's resistance to explore their tiff any further, itself perhaps serving as a statement that bad things don't always have to happen to the happiest of people.

When it becomes clear that they aren't the only ones on their wooded expanse is when The Strangers is at its level best. Containing some of the sharpest sound-work I've ever seen in a horror film it playfully and torturously terrifies; whether it be banging, scraping, shooting, vocalwork, and even the use of existing folk tracks in the film, which linger for what seems like an eternity at times. Director Bertino gets the tension all right, escaping the tedium of suspense that plagues many modern attempts at the genre, and creating a hella scary experience that on more than one occasion made me want to dive into a cushion and put my fingers in my ears. It evokes such a sickening feeling that the mere presence of weapons at all feels unnecessary; it's cold, clinical, life-sucking atmosphere an awesomely effective exercise likely to render you empty and shaken.

There are always moments in a slasher film you wish you could change, and protagonist's decisions that are frankly rather difficult to comprehend. There's never a manual about how to survive such an attack, but if there were, Kristen and James have got it at least the right way up. They don't remain exempt from queries about decision-making but crucially The Strangers acts quickly to limit their choices, and so when faced with the option of shouting and gesticulating at such stupidity, a despairing shrug seems more the appropriate option. It's fair to say, however, that Bertino does get a little too excited at times, and doesn't seem to know how accessible he wants to make the 'strangers' themselves, never showing their faces but making deliberate attempts to align them with 'normality'. I'd also like to have seen the initial 911 call pursued later in the film. There's never any reference to it in the attack, and its only purpose, as far as I can see, seems to be an aesthetic one.

I have difficulting condemning The Strangers for one or two errors/wild assumptions that horror films (especially of the slasher variety) are renowned for having, because as a dramatic sequence the movie is so wickedly punishing and wonderfully constructed. At one point in the film Liv Tyler's Kristen lights a cigarette. Stressed and terrified she potters about in the kitchen, oblivious to a masked 'stranger' standing just metres behind her. You know that the 'stranger' isn't going to touch Kristen but it doesn't matter. Time is frozen, and while our heroine numbs her tired brain in hope of rescuing a tired situation, we're no longer able to be with her. Now that's scary.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The General and I, But Why?

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
Directed by Frank Capra
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Walter Connolly
Grade: C

They say everyone loves a badboy. The danger. The excitement. I won't disagree. But Barbara Stanwyck's Megan, an American missionary embroiled in China's brutal civil war, has a lot to answer for her romantic tendencies. Beginning with the proposition of her impending marriage to Doctor and fellow missionary Robert Strife there's little strife to be seen in their relationship, but as they rush to the aid of a bunch of orphans they're separated, and after fainting Megan is transported to the palace of the morally-questionable General Yen, where she's kept against her will.

Nils Ather's Yen is an undeniable presence, and an intimidating one at that. His glare is potent, demeaning, and if the long-term reaction of Megan is anything to go by, a bewitching one as well. The film wastes no time in setting up its stall. This man is both brutal executioner and callous imprisoner, and clearly has a narrow knowledge of women, which altogether makes for a tumultuous relationship with our fleety forward-thinking heroine.

It's a similar premise to The King and I but much darker, and politically rather negative in truth, as Megan learns to respect and dare I say, love, a man that was so irreperably condemned in the first act. It would be perhaps easier to comprehend this evidently drastic about-turn had the film been able to detail their changing attitudes towards each other through more thoughtful means, instead opting to do this through the betrayal of the General's slave girl, a plot device that itself re-enforces much of the maligned political ideology of the General himself: women/liberalism as overly-caring, indecisive and weak, and men/imperialism as wise, strong, and a ruthless necessity.

The lasting memory of The Bitter Tea has to be in its finale, which details the success (or lack thereof) of the General himself. His downfall, at the fate of two women, has both re-percussions for himself and for Megan. While it would be fair to say that the elements regarding the civil war (token to say the least) are culturally all rather disinteresting, their relationship is not, but the finale only really adds to the confusion surrounding what they feel for each other and why. While her American lover waits in the wings Megan grieves for a man she's known but a week, and I couldn't begin to tell you what it is about him she'll miss.