Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa
Lost the 1985 Best Actress Oscar to Geraldine Page in “The Trip to Bountiful

Grade: ***

Sydney Pollack’s “Out of Africa” is all but cursed from the moment Meryl Streep’s voice-over booms out the words, “I had a farm in Africa…” – which, incidentally, happens in the first five minutes. Wholly distracting to the director’s establishing shots of grassy, romantic plains and Mogambo-style odes to wildlife, Streep’s intonation is supposedly inflective of an elder, Danish woman seeping out her last remaining nostalgic syllables. The grating reality is that there’s an element of Greer Garson’s elder Mrs. Parkington going on here; even if we never see Streep’s Karen Blixen age as drastically, or frown as raptly as Greer’s curious creation.

As is the case with so much of “Out of Africa” Blixen’s retrospective storytelling smacks of filmmaking built on themes inspired by literary classics, but with none of the dramatic clout or sound character development required to vitalise a period adventure. Instead this is more like a later David Lean epic, rife with weak symbolism and muted exchanges, and a safari setting so estranged from the characters that one struggles to surmise why on earth Streep’s Karen wants to be there in the first place. She may rock Milena Canonero’s costumes like a pro but otherwise Streep can’t engage with her aesthetic surroundings like a woman excited to be involved in new climates, relationships, communities; and in pockets of “Out of Africa” she navigates the pretty vacancy of Pollack’s inane setting like a lost, wounded animal.

She very nearly is wounded in a scene where a lion considers her for its dinner, only to act just as Redford’s Denys suspects and veer off into the wilderness of its own accord. It’s one of those flimsy attempts to develop the trust in Karen and Denys’ barely-there relationship, which is apparently blossoming even as Streep and Redford flounder under the self-consciousness of their scenes together. The pair are strangely neutered as personalities under the pressure of having to carry the Romance in the Romantic Epic, and their tryst only really garners interest when the film explores the pair’s opposing views on commitment. Streep’s at her finest when she telegraphs Karen’s struggle between free-spirited compassion and her staunch ideals of exclusive coupledom, clearly exasperated by Denys’ bachelor-style distancing, but wise not to foist her views so recklessly as to drive him away. Eventually, Karen reverts to that modus operandi as a confluence of lovestruck emotion, but Streep underplays this selfish streak to her character for longer than many an Actress would, and rallies us to a romantic cause without really appearing to try.

Despite the already-established promotion of romance as the film’s chief entity, “Out of Africa” and Streep achieve much deeper degrees of emotion through charting the disintegration of Blixen’s relationship with her Baron husband, played by a remarkable Klaus Maria Brandauer. Despite being socially-suited they never click as a couple (although she tries far harder than he does) and even after he behaves badly towards her Streep relays Karen’s strange affection for him - during and after their divorce – as a resigned, natural acceptance that their marriage was not meant to last. You can see that she admires his honesty, relates to the pressures of his standing and, crucially, empathises with his desire to be with someone who makes him happy. Streep’s attitude towards him oscillates between how one might treat an enemy, a maverick, a friend; and for however ephemeral a time, gives us a reason to cling onto Karen Blixen – a woman perhaps underserved by this lengthy, conventional tale.

There are chapters of “Out of Africa” that really alienate Streep; that paint Karen as a dilettante, ponderous and impenetrable like her Sarah was in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Much of that is hardly fair on an Actress quite marooned in a film geared towards looking like a finished article than being that finished article: this is a performance certainly not belonging to the healthy echelons of Streep’s vast collection of Academy notices, but she’s still a prize asset to a production devoted to forests and sands.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: Prey

Directed by Antoine Blossier
Starring: Grégoire Colin, Bérénice Bejo, François Levantal, Fred Ulysse, Joseph Malerba
Grade: C

As a pocket-size 75-minute feature, Antoine Blossier’s “Prey,” a film with a roaming sense of conviction towards its sequences of horror, is actually fairly compact. Blossier pulls no punches in his debut directorial outing, offering a unique spin on age-old themes. One of the many customs of horror cinema lies in familial drama - going all the way back to Jamie Lee Curtis’ maniacal brother trying to kill her in “Halloween,” and up to the infidelity and love triangle in 2004’s terrific “The Descent”; people beset on by predators are, to some degree, already unsettled in their personal lives.

The family dynamic in “Prey” reinforces this narrative staple of convoluted backstory, pitting Grégoire Colin (formerly of “Beau Travail”) as Nathan, a meek accountant up against the tyranny of his prosperous in-laws. Married to Claire (Bejo), he is growing increasingly frustrated with her obligations towards the family’s lucrative pesticide business, and particularly the dependence placed upon her by domineering father/employer Nicolas (Levanthal). Nathan wants nothing more than to have a child and settle down, while Claire remains wary of adding distance between her and the family.

A gathering at their country mansion gets off to a shaky start, as rampaging deer from a surrounding forest threaten the life of Claire’s father. The male members of the household (including younger son David) venture into it to surmise why the animals are behaving erratically, and with the intent to extinguish any potential threats that they encounter. The expedition unsurprisingly does not run smoothly, and as tempers flare between the gun-wielding alphas, they discover that the primary danger is not each other but the volatile, predatory wildlife lurking in the undergrowth.

“Prey” is being heavily promoted as a special effects coup of sorts, provided by a Hollywood team somewhat renowned for their visual flair. This doesn’t translate as a particularly valuable commodity on-screen: in terms of production values, “Prey” appears to have much more in common with minimal-budget, visceral horror films (which is not at all an insult), and rather than manipulate through shock-tactic editing, endeavours to instil tension through character development and internal politics. A canny use of handheld camera has been the benchmark since 1999’s unsteady “Blair Witch” adventure, and this Indie woodland descendant doesn’t deviate much from that train of thought.

As these men venture deeper into the forest, the question begs: Are they targets because they’re ungrateful with their own lives; or just too morally-tarnished as people? It might be that we simply can’t bear for a family with two-point-four children to perish, but biochemical magnates and ageing tycoons are within the realm of acceptable ‘victims’. The further “Prey” goes it becomes a lot looser in its desire to expose the allegorical goals of the narrative, eventually revealing its lack of sophistication through utilising platitudinous ideas about society’s preoccupation with land and money, and its ruthless need to preserve it. Moreover, the introduction of Erin Brockovich-style injustice into its explanation of events -- as an emotional device designed to provoke ecological outrage and further lessen the appeal of these men -- is a shade disappointing.

The exhilarating appeal of “Prey” lies in its grounded depiction of aggression as a product of legitimate animalistic instinct, and its thematic consideration of what constitutes a predator. Unconcerned with florid displays of violence, Blossier charts the primal regression of his desperate cast (not unlike Marshall in “The Descent” incidentally) and in the heart of this quest for survival unearths a rousing, unexpected reality within the frenzy. This reality reaches its peak when the behaviour of one of the characters severely compromises our view of them, but is executed with a daring dose of finality and allays with the primitive descension of a no-holds-barred war.

With more time afforded in exploring the interworking of the family (the action element of the film begins less than ten minutes in) there would be much more of a symbiotic value to some of the relationships in the film. As it is, we don’t sense enough of the characters’ deepseated traits and attitudes to become immersed in the domestic strife. Nathan’s relationship with Claire, for instance, is founded upon a solitary conversation between the two, and it isn’t fleshed out much more beyond that; while Nicolas remains a corporate antagonist used to punctuate the film’s social commentary. “Prey” asks questions about what standard of behaviour – if any – we should expect from people essentially out for themselves, and whether we should be happy with its ropey, cynical conclusions on human nature. In that regard, one thing is surely for certain: the film has a pretty cutthroat advocacy of reprehensibility and karma.

“Prey” squanders opportunities to flaunt its grittier aspects, neither fully content to explore the motivations of either of the two female characters, or exploit the situational drama of the opening act to make its issues worthwhile. It’s undeniably impacting as a primitive horror, but what is atoned for by a fascinating shift in tone has already primarily been undone by overt, weary nods to allegory and is finally hampered by a worrying late preoccupation with rectitude. The main moral of this story is surprisingly not to stay out of the forest.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Review: Chalet Girl

Chalet Girl
Directed by Phil Traill
Starring: Felicity Jones, Ed Westwick, Bill Nighy, Tamsin Egerton, Bill Bailey, Brooke Shields
Grade: D+

The term "a waste of good talent" is banded around a lot in the world of film criticism, but it's difficult to assess what constitutes squandering what's essentially at your disposal. It seems unlikely that, in twenty years time, Felicity Jones will look back on "Chalet Girl" as a lynchpin in her filmography, since its muted impact on the 2011 calendar will surely see Phil Traill's film become a supermarket clearance bin staple; and yet, Jones' entry into the realm of the featherweight romcom somehow feels like a proclamation that she's home. While she may have felt like the cheaper option to relative lookalike Gemma Arterton, the prolific Brit performer's loss is our gain; Jones gives a star-like performance in a dire, unintuitive film, clearly working up to -- what's perceived to be -- her upcoming breakthrough in Sundance hit, "Like Crazy."

Jones succeeds through her wise hesitancy to accentuate the sketchily dated class convergence in Tom Williams' scriptural familiarities: there are only so many overt displays of disconcerting token snobbery one can take before the social implications of girl-next-door Kim involving herself with public school Johnny (Westwick) begin to wane in interest. Kim's ex-skateboarding talents are glossed over almost as soon as they're revealed, as the early emphasis is placed on plugging her loser-status as a waitress in a dead-end fast food joint. When applying to become a 'Chalet Girl' in the busy season of an Austrian ski resort - a role requiring refinement, patience, and a pretty face - it couldn't be made more obvious that Kim lacks these qualities, even as Jones herself at least contradicts the last of those without appearing to try. 

That she can preserve Kim as an independent presence for vast periods of "Chalet Girl" is a feat in itself, given that there's such a preoccupation with neutralising the characters as romantic archetypes, existing only to serve the needs of an ambling story and grafting siren. Tamsin Egerton's Georgie inexplicably becomes the best friend overnight; while Kim's father (stand-up comic Bill Bailey in a rare film role) pops up with alarming regularity as a domestic nightmare designed to (once again) represent working class England as cosy squalor. "Chalet Girl" also recycles the notion that wealthy families prioritise fiscal sense over each other's happiness -- or are, at the very least (in Bill Nighy's case) ambivalent towards said happiness.  

And still, the worst part of Traill's film may not be that it fails to surround a flourishing actress with a licentious scribe, an alluring leading man, or an interesting network of characters; but that it never once appears to challenge what these characters stand for. Lack of ambition and/or originality isn't always the most destructive element of bad filmmaking, but when a narrative path is as age-old as the one "Chalet Girl" opts for, isn't there a necessity to make an effort with the setup? Whether it's the smattering of obnoxious socialites versus 2-D hippy-liberal snowboarders, the insistence that Kim's personal tragedy finds a place in her ultimate triumph, or Kim and Johnny's utter inability to see past the issue of currency, "Chalet Girl" is indelibly lazy towards developing thoughtful relationships within its mountain-top setting. 

"Chalet Girl" is without a real antagonist, instead content to make Westwick's suave Johnny an instigator of his own romantic troubles - a wallflower to the idea of actual conviction, difficult to care about as a romantic proponent. This inability is indicative of a film that doesn't even have a tagline to reel us in. Wasn't "Love On The Slopes" available? How about "Love Snows No Bounds"? While understated "Chalet Girl" is also underthought, and isn't eager enough to matter beyond your weekend DVD rental, your Wednesday night two-for-one, or - if you're lucky - your 40-minute walkout? Flick can and will hack it on bigger plains than this icy mound of tacky confection, so go elsewhere for your fix of eternal happiness. Say "Sweet dreams, my Chalet ex" to this sorry Alps affair, and do it with a clear conscience.