Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Volpi Cup Winners: Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh in "A Streetcar Named Desire"

(Won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 over Pier Angeli in "Teresa", Judy Holliday in "Born Yesterday", Nora Swinburne in "The River", and Simone Valère in "The Night Is My Kingdom".)

Grade: *****

In an awards haul that would eventually net her a second Oscar, Vivien Leigh brings to life -- from the pen of Tennessee Williams -- surely one of the most introspectively challenging characters ever depicted on screen. Her Blanche Dubois is rather like what a 48 year-old Scarlett O'Hara might have amounted to, had she developed a feminine strain of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and forgot that the American Civil War even happened.

Arriving by streetcar Blanche at first appears to be one of those annoying relatives, who come to stay with low expectations of the life that you have made for yourself, and leave with an even sourer opinion. Upon her arrival she flounces around, primly studying Stella's bowling alley surroundings as one would a herd of cattle, and immediately addresses the issue of her sister's downward class-convergence. She coos, Miss Jean Brodie-esque in her Estuary version of Southern drawl, "Oh Stella, do you really live in this place?", continuing to spout from meaningless subject to meaningless subject. It's obvious that Blanche is a narcissistic conversationalist, content to talk through you if she thinks she's constructing a positive image of herself, hiding from the implications of her presence at the Kowalski residence.

Leigh's chatter, with its kooky erratic pitch, and its focusless shifting intonation, makes her so opaquely inaccessible that it's no wonder that Stella's husband Stanley finds her presence a maddening bother. As she flirts with a hapless, lovestruck Karl Malden like a sixteen year-old awake past her curfew it suddenly dawns on you that this woman is never going to face up to her age or her past. Leigh addresses Blanche's complete loss of identity, telegraphing the fluid literary majesty of a Jane Austen heroine into an ageing spinster, playing up to multiple facets and ideals of respectability to attain a marriage that she isn't sure that she wants anyway. Is Blanche just bored with existence? Destined to live a life more ordinary than the ones she teaches in her English class?

When you get two people that are either unwilling or unable to back down from their ideals, things are bound to end messily, and Blanche's inability to curb her worldly outlook eventually makes her the victim of the piece. The permanent state of self-imposed, disillusioned fragility etched on Leigh's face in Blanche's never-ending soliloquies, distort her playful artistry into such an artificially condescending tool. In the scene where Blanche and Stanley have their final showdown she flirts as Kay Francis would in the Thirties, attempting to mould Stanley into the fellow that he just ain't. Leigh lets Blanche revel and strain in gathering control of their exchange, fretfully backtracking as Stanley's infuriation grows. Blanche isn't sure whether she wants to be the sister that everyone loves, the "older" temptress, or the virgin bride, but whichever it is she wants it on her terms. Leigh does an incredible job in making each sly remark, each flippantly false self-diminishment, a clamouring attempt at affection, painfully exposing Blanche's motives when we least expect her to crack.

Leigh's own well-documented precarious mental state has often been cited as a reason behind the ambiguity in her "Streetcar" turn. However accurate an assessment that is, her work here is a complete physical embodiment of identity crises, and a gauntlet-throwing emotional immersion into the pressures of repressed female sexuality.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Review of "The Expendables" (Stallone, 2010)

The Expendables
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Giselle Itié, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steve Austin, Bruce Willis
Grade: C

Written for InRO:

As a 2010 picture Sylvester Stallone’s “The Expendables” shares more commonalities with action pictures of days gone by. That’s not to say that the film is marooned in the late Eighties; just that Stallone is essentially aware of how far removed the days of “Rambo” and “Commando” are from current forays into the genre. The film is somewhat of a resurrection of the era, but only to the extent of harking back to America’s testier times with Cuba, in the form of South American Generals and hefty guerrilla warfare.

The “expendables” themselves are a group of mercenaries, hired by dodgy American agencies to eradicate powerful, heavily-secured guys that take blazing weapons and tons of ammo to conquer. Although most of the bevy of stars have (admittedly, I’m sure) seen better days, there’s little use in debating the on-screen presence of Stallone, Rourke, and Schwarzenegger. Accompanied by plucky daredevil Lee Christmas (Statham), Barney Ross (Stallone) flies to the island of Velina to scout its dictator, upon arrival meeting the group’s contact Sandra. When local guards kick up a fuss Ross and Christmas are forced to flee the island, leaving Sandra at the mercy of Government officials, and ensuring that they must go back to finish the job that they started.

The presence of a feisty heroine notwithstanding, “The Expendables” is often turgid, and not as shrewd or easy to tolerate as it should be. One might say it’s more of a “Jewel of the Nile” than a “Romancing the Stone”, sacrificing narrative intricacy and thought for a familiar 101 depiction of corporate villainy (even if that depiction comes courtesy of a dynamite Eric Roberts). The rapid-fire encounters the group enjoy are interspersed with occasionally witty banter between bromance duo Ross and Christmas, welcomed largely because it requires the aural saturation to subside for a few seconds. Aside from an interesting-but-nowhere-to-go sub-plot involving Christmas and his would-be missus, Stallone is fairly stubborn in maintaining that this story is all about the men and their mission. The men are endearing and slick at a stretch, but the mission lacks composure and structure. As it is, I’m inclined to believe that barging your way through a castle with guns hardly constitutes a “mission” anyway.

While the badass credibility of the meaty cast allows for stoic genre convention, the array of different commodities on offer – from the martial arts exploits of Jet Li, to the ice-cold arrogance of Dolph Lundgren – suggest that while determinedly courting box-office pull, “The Expendables” is at least attempting a legitimately flexible oversight of the genre. The inter-generational nature of the personalities creates a sense of this being the family-tree of action piledrivers, a genealogically-linked tribute to how the genre has evolved since Stallone was roaming the jungle. The film feels particularly indulgent of drawing attention to the Actors’ renowned traits, going so far as to satirise Schwarzenegger’s retirement and foray into the world of American politics with the denunciation, “He wants to be president.” The group act as if taking down a General is akin to an evening at the local bar, but the suggestion of a world outside of social alienation is often ridiculed in this way. A tacky but trustier reaction to the Ocean films; these men are a bunch of pariahs, and they embrace it.

Dubbing the group as “expendable” is asserting the fact that they are flirting with death, and that their demise is unimportant in the grand scheme of the world. The underlying motives of the film, however, pertain to include the notion of the Actor as expendable. An action movie is rarely an actor’s movie, but “The Expendables”, as an homage to fifty-plus year-olds and their perpetually bulky guns, considerably bucks the trend. In Hollywood terms, the actor is as expendable an article as civilians in times of wartime; necessary casualties of the bigger picture. The lengthy absences from the screen of Sly, Mickey, and Arnie serve as an observation of how one’s profile can flounder from decade to decade.

With all their experience of wielding weapons from the filmic front-line the ensemble in “The Expendables” feel rather like a 21st-Century version of the jam-packed cast in the 1962 epic, “How the West Was Won”. Indeed, the film often reads an upgraded version of such erstwhile depictions of factional warfare, with its heady nostalgia and inherent sense of comradeship. While cultural overhaul was on the mind of John Ford, individualist tendencies and general disdain creep into “The Expendables”, and the film adopts a cynically-diminished attitude towards Nationalist ideals, blaming bureaucracy and the misdemeanours of Western philosophy for foreign instability, going so far as to reference the pain of the Vietnam War.

If rumours of a sequel are right, it doesn’t look as if “The Expendables” is the final hurrah that it appears to be. The tongue-in-cheek remarks of Stallone et al. only half-mask the remonstrations of “Look at us! We can still do it!”, and work in the sense that it binds the team. The film, however, is another matter, and “The Expendables” is a prime example of a picture coasting on star power. Even if the charm offensive isn’t wholly unsuccessful there’s a girth of quantity-over-quality, and I’d gladly expend of most of the former.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Venice Screening Schedule and Anticipation

As I've already mentioned I'm off to Venice again this year for the film festival. This is just a quick heads-up to let you know what I'll be seeing and when.

I'm planning to provide commentary on as many of the films as I can, and there'll also shortly be a special section added on the sidebar for gradings, as they filter in. Meanwhile, there'll be plenty of reaction to each film over on my Twitter page, with little zingers and the odd catty comment. Just six nights to go!

My screening schedule:

Wednesday 1 September

Black Swan
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen
Directed by Andrew Lau
Starring: Donnie Yen, Shu Qi, Anthony Wong, Huang Bo

Thursday 2 September

Directed by Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis
Starring: Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Don Johnson

Dark Love
Directed by Antonio Capuano
Starring: Irene De Angelis, Gabriele Agrio, Luisa Ranieri, Corso Salani, Valeria Golino, Fabrizio Gifuni

Directed by Julian Schnabel
Starring: Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Willem Dafoe, Yasmine Al Masri, Vanessa Redgrave

Norweigan Wood
Directed by Anh Hung Tran
Starring: Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara, Kengo Kora, Reika Kirishima

Friday 3 September

Sleeping Beauty
Directed by Catherine Breillat
Starring: Carla Besnaïnou, Julia Artamonov, Kérian Mayan, David Chausse

Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Benicio Del Toro, Michelle Monaghan, Laura Chiatti, Simona Ventura

Reign of Assassins
Directed by John Woo & Su Chao-Pin
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Jung Woo Sung, Wang Xueqi, Barbie Hsu, Kelly Lin

Saturday 4 September

A Woman
Directed by Giada Colagrande
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Jess Weixler, Stefania Rocca, Michele Venitucci

Directed by François Ozon
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard, Judith Godrèche, Jérémie Régnier

La Passione
Directed by Carlo Mazzacurati
Starring: Silvio Orlando, Giuseppe Battiston, Corrado Guzzanti, Cristiana Capotondi, Stefania Sandrelli, Kasia Smutniak

Sunday 5 September

Little Voices
Directed by Jairo Carrillo

Monday 6 September

Meek's Cutoff
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson

Tuesday 7 September

Essential Killing
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski
Starring: Vincent Gallo, Emmanuelle Seigner

Wednesday 8 September

Promises Written In Water
Directed by Vincent Gallo
Starring: Vincent Gallo, Delfine Bafort, Sage Stallone, Lisa Love

The Town
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively

Black Venus
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Starring: Yahima Torres, Olivier Gourmet, André Jacobs

Expect notes on previous Golden Lion and Volpi Cup winners before the festival begins; plus a review of a recent release.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Golden Lion Winners: Vera Drake

Vera Drake
Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring: Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis, Eddie Marsan, Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Heather Craney, Peter Wright
Grade: A -

(Won the Golden Lion of San Marco in 2004, over "3-Iron", "Birth", "Howl's Moving Castle", "Kings and Queen", and "The Sea Inside")

It was around this time six years ago that "Vera Drake" was gathering buzz for its awards push, the height of which was for its little-known star Imelda Staunton. The film and Staunton went on to win the Golden Lion and Volpi Cup, before collecting three Oscar nominations. Although my feelings regarding the film's quality are unchanged, when I initially watched "Vera Drake" I considered it to be more of a parable, a tale of naivety being punished, than a social study. A recent viewing suggests that Vera herself is less sure or representative a heroine (she isn't made a martyr by Staunton or Leigh), and the production ultimately benefits from a more flexile approach towards the subject of guilt.

One of Mike Leigh's most enviable assets is how he compels his Actors to adapt to their filmic surroundings, to think about how their characters would react to the different social situations they find themselves in. As with any family the Drakes encompass an array of personality-types which flourish depending on the circumstance, the extended familial links allowing for nervous exchanges of budding relationships. It works well, meek daughter Ethel and her new fiancée Reg provide a platform for Vera to exercise her typical caretaking abilities; Stan's brother Frank and his wife Joyce act as an interesting aside on the growth of consumerism, part of the post-war baby boom that places Joyce on decidedly unsteady ground with the Drakes once Vera's revelation comes.

"Vera Drake" is much in the grain of theatre, subjecting its title character to a trial by proxy, rather discouraging us from taking a side in the moral issue on show. Abortion is a polarising enough discussion as it is without drawing attention to the spectrum of opinion, and for the most part the film is successful at relaying the matter to fearful glances and tension within the home environment. Leigh concentrates his focus and helps to richen our voyeuristic experience by using his Actors' own instinctive observations to broaden our sense of the period. Scripturally, his cast are making the best of what they have, and so the Drake family become a canny approximation of working-class post-war England, muddling through life without really taking it for granted. The literalisms of the narrative are strengthened by the aomebic, confined set-plays, anchored significantly by Dick Hope's squalid, tempered cinematography.

Imelda Staunton thrives on the responsibility of her character, ingratiating Vera's selflessness through her insistent tone. For a small woman she projects such a formidable air, and gives the impression that by allowing her to help you it will benefit her life as well as yours. One could imagine this frail, stubby woman carting bricks around, having hoodwinked builders into believing that her presence is indispensable. Vera's self-expository opening serves to create a sense of routine, of this being just another Monday in her busy life, and only enhances the dolorous fervour of her casual nursemaid act being violently upturned in the film's second half. Staunton reacts to the police's arrival with a mixture of firm acceptance and tangible collapse, and when forced to confront the severity of her crime in the subsequent interrogation, the geyser of shame has well and truly burst. A harrowing scene sees Vera whisper her secret inaudibly to distressed, faintly resilient husband Stan, the final fall from grace of a woman that appeared to be such an untouchable character.

While Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark so painstakingly draws attention to its politics, Godardian in the ferocity with which it questions why we think the way that we do, Vera Drake isn't on anywhere near as lucid a plain, since essentially Vera is guilty of the crime she is charged. That doesn't prevent her demise from bearing resemblances to Dancer's Selma: the creative, theatrical side of Selma -- where she isn't following instructions so much as exercising her rite as a leading lady, basking in a rare limelight -- is somewhat relative to the way that Vera wants to craft a path for her children, in a facilitative but harmlessly-maternal capacity. The primary function of both women is to serve their family, and when Vera is eventually confronted about her actions, the assimilating dread of being unable to organise family events, or oversee the births, marriages, and deaths in her period of impending absence, is the most sympathetic part of her plight.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

A Review of "Hierro" (Ibáñez, 2010)

Director: Gabe Ibáñez
Starring: Elena Anaya, Miriam Correa, Kaiet Rodríguez
Grade: C -

Written for Subtitled Online:

Like the starkness of a “missing” poster Gabe Ibáñez’s "Hierro" immediately seeks to hook an audience and serve a purpose, the underwater submergence in its eerie opening a nod to the natural mystic. The commonalities of recent thrillers involving absent youths suggest a struggle between practicality and supernature; can children really just vanish? While the reality, of course, is that many of the missing are never traced, "Hierro" imitates forays into this burgeoning sub-genre (The Forgotten, The Dark, The Orphanage, to name but a few) by entertaining the notion of the mother-son bond as transcendent of physical relativity.

"Hierro" is immediately complicated by the repetition of similar instances of mothers entering into consciousness -- from a car accident and deep sleep, respectively -- to find their sons nowhere to be seen. The latter of the two forms the basis of the film as María (Elena Anaya) wakes from her slumber on a ferry bound for the island of El Hierro and panics that her son Diego may have been kidnapped, or worse, drowned. Divers come up empty and three years pass before the discovery of a body brings María back there, where she is asked to identify the corpse. Revealing that it is not Diego the circumstances of her return to the island encourage María to ponder whether her son may still be alive somewhere, and when she thinks that she sees him on a deserted beach her mindset alters to accommodate an investigative instinct.

What of this mother-son bond then? Julianne Moore, Naomi Watts, Maria Bello, and Belen Rueda have all recently played distraught maternal figures attempting to track down their offspring by whatever means – usually to the extent of at least recognising what has happened to them. There’s a sense of atonement in their actions, that by contravening authority they become grown-up children themselves, that they are somehow behaviourally complicit, closer to relating to the people they have raised. We don’t really get the opportunity to gauge whether the guilt in María has set in at first, since the film skips forward in time rather abruptly after Diego becomes officially lost. It begs the question: what has María been doing in the three years that have passed? Why is she now suddenly demanding a resolution?

Fascinating as they are, neither the film nor an occasionally dynamite Anaya can fully address these queries, which are consigned to the backburner for the showier tendencies of director Ibáñez. The early premonitory announcement by Diego to his mother that he doesn’t like hide and seek, “because you might not find me”, is an early sign that Ibáñez is eager to plug the sinister undertones of the narrative. It proves alarmingly destructive in quelling the sensitivity of "Hierro"’s themes, as he overworks the production with incessant aural shock-tactics and saturates the mise-en-scene with revelrous flash-camera frippery. His attempts to allude to the mythical elements of the island, and mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Diego, extend to the kind of rash eventualities that see a maintenance man fish a doll’s head out of a blocked toilet. Even a shower sequence designed to demonstrate María’s cleansing of guilt, the final phase of her post-ferry grief, is so strobe-distorted that it’s borderline unwatchable. Pushing this overt brand of macabre creepiness detracts from the interesting socio-realist angle offered, María’s bitter desperation recalling shades of last year’s Katalin Varga, a film that chronicled a brewing sense of vengeance in its heroine.

It enables us to register with the dread of having our sense of scope rendered foolish, that we aren’t omniscient and that questions can’t always be answered, but cajoles us by confirming some of María’s suspicions about El Hierro and its inhabitants. During María’s quest for answers she boards a trailer and proceeds to have a violent face-off with the woman on board it, a scene which indebts itself to Tarantino’s Kill Bill and marks a shift in direction for the film. For periods the film is as dark and captivating as this scene, and Anaya’s presence carries it through even its most absurd revelations, but while often suggested that mortality is a less ambiguous state than rationale, the focus is placed more on plot than character. María’s grief is undermined by the gratuity of this stand-off, and the fetishisation of her as a powerhouse would-be-killer reinforces the sense that "Hierro" has become somewhat of a joyless spectacle.

Considering the emotional weight of the first act there is little organic about the way that the film is put together. Ibáñez, while essentially “generous” appears bound by influence, and heavy-handed with the more uncertain aspects of the story. "Hierro" benefits from the debilitating sparseness of the landscape, but is too compact as a narrative, and suffers from the many brazen efforts to generate suspense. A sombre lullaby over the closing credits may act as sonar relief at the end of a tiresome ordeal, but it’s only the cherry atop a stylistic mound of confection. Sometimes less is more.