Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reversal of Fortune (1990)

Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Ron Silver, Glenn Close
Grade: C+

Reversal of Fortune begins with the facetious introduction you're more accustomed to hearing on an episode of Desperate Housewives. Glenn Close, as troubled braindead corpse Sunny Von Bulow, provides an immediate voice-over narration from all-but-beyond-the-grave, casually outlining her husband Claus's subsequent arrest for her murder, while at the same time remaining maddeningly coy about whether Mr. Von Bulow is guilty or not. It's no real spoiler to divulge that the film never reaches a concrete conclusion about this - admirably, it can be argued - but in walking a non-committal line Barbet Schroeder's film quickly opts for an easy way out.

That "way out" is Jeremy Irons, given license to colour the accused Claus's ubiquitous self-satisfaction with shades of mystery (a freedom he guzzles as rapturously as his character does champagne), and singularly responsible for shifting perceptions of Von Bulow's gainly mechanics and bone-dry humour. The uproarious Irons allays the menace and revelry enough to allude to the man's use of wit and façade as a defence mechanism, somewhat justifying the sanguine attitude towards his wife's death and the impending threat of lifelong imprisonment by playing up to his status as an hermetic media villain. This role also won Irons an Oscar at his first and only attempt.

The decision of Schroeder et. al to let Irons have the floor could therefore be seen as a wise one, were the attempts to back up character analysis with investigative intricacy more substantative. Employed to take on the defence case is lawyer Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), whose vocation is now based more in the world of academia than the courtroom. The cynical Prof. Dershowitz recruits his students to help him analyse the demise of Mrs. Claus - a case which mostly comprises of medical deficiencies and unambitious timing issues popular with hour-long TV crime drama's. Moreover, the very nature of Reversal of Fortune's analytical strand appears to stretch Von Bulow's humility to questionable lengths. A risk-taking debonair he may be, but enough ingrained in the class system to entrust his case to more cunning, reputable practicioners than Dershowitz and his merry men.

So no, I'm pretty sure that Schroeder makes a dire mistake in heaping all of his eggs into one basket, bound by component Irons and his slow-burning genius, to the point where his tour-de-force renders the film's flashbacks redundant. Pre-occupied with maintaining a stolid median, the interspersed scenes between Mr. and Mrs. Von Bulow feel tentatively reluctant to reveal much about either their relationship or the tragic events that ended it. Instead, I suspect that the story plays as it was actually born, and that watching Von Bulow's feather-ruffling was enough to deem an altogether tedious non-event worthy of adaptation.

Something that feels particularly poorly thought-out is the title. It would have been interesting to have experienced and witnessed the reaction to Reversal of Fortune, a film that teeters but never veers enough to reach obtuse angles, never mind a one-hundred-and-eighty degree swing. And thus, there we have it; a movie one man cannot conquer. He can, however, electrify a film that never quite reaches the courage of Claus Von Bulow himself, and for that the titular fortune, while not gold, is glittering, majestic Irons.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Addicts 2009: Actor in a Supporting Role

Niels Arestrup in A Prophet

John Cromwell and his 1950 melodrama Caged was at pains to stress the failings of a system that breeds criminals as much as it punishes them. Luciani, as "top dog" of Audiard's volatile milieu, is seminal to the French director's similar critique of law and order (allbeit with the addition of some shrewd gender switches), emphasising the importance of emulation and association within alpha power struggle. Arestrup roams his territory with the desperation of a canine but little impulsive aggression, appeasing people, dependent upon people, as much as he flaunts his own authority. He makes Luciani a rather sad disciple of a fading mafia hierarchy, failed by the disappearing sense of structure within criminality, and the new young breed of juvenile.

Peter Capaldi in In the Loop

Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker delivers scathing putdowns to whomever he deems his milquetoast bitch of the minute, such is his above-and-beyond role as a 'spin doctor' at the centre of interdependent departmental fuss, even as he exhibits far more independent thought than those that surround him. Capaldi is often 'in the zone', extrapolating his words violently and impulsively, punctuating the script's satirical praxes with the mechanics of his performance rather than distracting from them. Malcolm loses influence when the group cross the Atlantic, unable to exercise as much control as he mediates with men more powerful than he is, and while he noticeably concedes his aggression you can still see him sussing the situation out, deciding whether this ambassador, diplomat etc. is worthy of his time. When faced with the relative incompetence he otherwise bulldozes his true colours emerge, and Capaldi gives Malcolm a sense of superiority that is the elitist essence of political comment, in whatever form.

Woody Harrelson in The Messenger

The early exchanges between Captain Tony Stone and Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery are very one-sided, and a clearly elemental Woody Harrelson revels in projecting Stone's superiority over Will, vehemently outlining the protocol involved as a "messenger". The suggestion of a dillettante power trip always lingers (it's a staple of the army anyway, right?) yet Harrelson works to outline Tony's desire for convergence in his relationship with Will, managing their social exchanges in an attempt to co-erce the younger man into a friendship he would otherwise shun. Harrelson particularly excels in a drunken scene where he admits to not having seen a great deal of front-line action, cleverly bringing Tony's prioritisation of work to the forefront, and revealing just why he is such an intimidating presence in that environment. Intimidating but never threatening; a belligerent workaholic.

Tom Hollander in In the Loop

Don't be fooled, it's difficult difficult LEMON difficult to pull off a character as painfully unaware of his public image, and evidently clueless as to how to build a rapport with the political subjects hanging on his every word. Simon Foster is a silly figure of fun in a silly political satire, and Hollander's regal sentiment is a perfect buffer for Foster's hesitance towards the world of spin. He's self-important but can't back any of this up, thoroughly indoctrinated into prestige and power hangups, clamouring to exercise his status even as it burrows him into more sticky situations than one would care to entertain. The slow moments of realisation that pepper Hollander's meek, mousy demeanor are raucous entertainment, and ensure that he just can't be taken seriously. After all, people don't love Boris Johnson for his competence.

Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds

For what is occasionally plugged as a one-man show, Waltz certainly owes a lot to Tarantino's desire to make both heroes and villains of the piece self-indulgent; they're all "inglourious" to a fault. Furthermore, the multi-lingual nature of Col. Landa and his authoritative position within the narrative, gives him the kind of standout superiority that wins supporters. I'll be darned though if Waltz doesn't rise to this audacious challenge, completely attuned to what the film requires him to be. Landa never really pushes Solondz-style boundaries of support for his anti-semitic quest, but there's always a sense that Waltz is orchestrating everything (even up to his own downfall), tantalising in the film's opening scene, and again in the strudel face-off.

Winner: Christoph Waltz
Runner Up: Niels Arestrup

Best of the Rest: Jason Bateman's shamed politician in State of Play, Thomas Sangster's thoughtful Paul McCartney in Nowhere Boy. Scott Bakula is stellar in The Informant!, and Jose Luis Gomez has magic moments in Broken Embraces.

Other Delights: Andre Holland in Sugar, Bin Won in Mother, and Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

When It Rains, It Pours

The Rainmaker (1956)
Directed by Joseph Anthony
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Burt Lancaster, Wendell Corey, Earl Holliman
Grade: B

To all intents and purposes The Rainmaker is a Tennessee Williams adaptation, with its repressed and distorted sexual relationships and small town drama. It has nothing to do with Williams but his presence and influence is nevertheless felt in N. Richard Nash's adaptation (from his own play), the story of a spinster determined to marry and settle down on her own terms. Said spinster, Lizzie Curry, is livened by screen stalwart Katharine Hepburn, fresh from a similarly timid turn as a romanced singleton in David Lean's Summertime the year previously.

Having recently seen Summer and Smoke it isn't difficult to surmise how The Rainmaker emerges as a much more successful outing, staunchly characterised even as it lets Hepburn dally between nobility and self-loathing. "I can't move in these clothes" she exclaims, in a particularly gruelling scene in which she deconstructs herself in harsh self-evaluation while her flabbergasted father looks on. Unlike De Havilland's Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, Lizzie isn't afraid to confront uneasy realities, her long monologues largely well judged by Hepburn, even as they ensure the production is exactly that; a production, accompanied by a try-hard score that sparkles but can't single-handedly cinematise. Hepburn herself is too old to play Lizzie, and regularly reverts to her triumphant Alice Adams to detail the wrenching awkwardness of the single life. She does have some beautifully touching moments, particularly in the earlier-referred scene with her father, and when she rashly flirts with suitor Wendell Corey.

Burt Lancaster's arrival as a lothario professing he can bring rain to a depleted town instigates problems for Lizzie, who develops an attraction for him, compromising her rational romantic ideals. The question of whether Lancaster's Bill Starbuck is a genius or a conman eventually dissipates, but Starbuck's promise provides the basis for The Rainmaker's psychosexual analysis. Has Lizzie been waiting for an outsider to whisk her away from "normality"? Ultimately, as a personality Lizzie often seems too aware of herself, her family dynamic, her social situation, to the extent where she lectures her father, brothers, Starbuck, about relationships without putting anything into practice. It's always easier to say than do, but Lizzie is enough of an informative voice for Anthony as it is, and feels restlessly fetishised to hammer home issues the film could have dealt with through other characters, particularly the decreasingly relevant brother Noah.

By the time the inevitable rain shower ends this frothy romp The Rainmaker has weighed in at two hours of self-conscious longing for happiness, unmistakeably compact in narrative regardless of the frenetic, sprawling way in which Lizzie conducts herself. There's enough here to warrant the film's neuroticism though; The Rainmaker knows better than to cast its net, and is all the better for sticking to and richening its intrepid subject, ingratiating to the end.