Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Sennentuntschi

Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps
Directed by Michael Steiner
Starring: Roxane Mesquida, Nicholas Ofczarek, Andrea Zogg, Carlos Leal, Joel Basman
Grade: C

‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ is a proverb that plays a prominent role in Michael Steiner’s tongue-twister horror title “Sennentuntschi.” Having recently had its UK premiere at burgeoning horror festival FrightFest, the mythological elements of this chilling, religious shocker are promoted through titular add-on ‘Curse of the Alps,’ which helps to cement the feeling that the supernatural will feature heavily in the drama. In this regard “Sennentuntschi” does not disappoint, offering a uniquely deranged brand of melodrama, and a plot that embraces wild abandon.

Beginning with the grizzly discovery of a skeleton on a mountainside, "Sennentuntschi" flashes back to detail the whos, hows and whys behind the death of this person, and the nature of their presence in a small village in 1975 Switzerland. Keen to ante up the drama early on, this retrospective switch features an immediate introduction of conflict, one of the priests at the local church discovered hung from the bells in an apparent suicide. For the religious inhabitants of this place a man of the cloth taking his own life bears serious implications, and so the tiny populous seek to discover how this has happened, and to indict the evils behind it.

When a villager spies a mysterious young woman roaming the woods a search brings her back to the town, where the reluctant agreement is that she is an outsider here by chance. After the local Sheriff Sebastian fetches her back to the home of the Mayor, Sennentuntschi attacks his pregnant wife in a fit of panic and runs off into the mountains, prompting the villagers to assert that she is a demonic presence in their haven, and to seek out the young woman and bring her to justice.

Since back in the days of "Johnny Belinda" muting female protagonists has proved a handy cinematic device for making male exploitation appear even more deplorable. Sennentuntschi exhibits the signs of stunted social development and a lack of emotional maturity (the reason for this is later revealed) appearing as mythical and androgynous a figure as Sci-fi badass Summer Glau in "Serenity." There's something dangerous about the way Mesquida stalks this mountainside town, and Steiner promotes her as a form of mythological being, judging all around her with instinctual verve rather than adhere to the ideological framework of this place. Partly through shunning perceived "normalities" of this religiously fanatical paradigm, and partly due to emerging in the wrong place at the wrong time, Sennentuntschi finds herself hunted down, but still treats this town as her natural habitat.

Monday, September 26, 2011

First Oscar Predictions for 2011

Last Friday's release of Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" was significant in more ways than one; not only is it an accomplished and riveting piece of work, it's the first major Awards-focused contender to be released this year. That's not to say that those out for a while (at least Stateside) such as "Midnight in Paris" and the audacious "The Tree of Life" aren't in the conversation for Oscars -- just that they understandably didn't position themselves in prime Autumn/Winter calendar spots.

With the Venice and Toronto festivals now over, and a mere two weeks until London's own showcase kicks off, it seems as good a time as any to dole out some tentative predictions for this year's Oscar nominees, announced in January. The next couple weeks see hopefuls like "Warrior," "Melancholia," and "The Help" released on UK shores, while the rest of the year features new work from Steven Spielberg, Alexander Payne, and Clint Eastwood.

Here is how I currently see the races shaping up:

Best Picture

"The Artist"
"The Descendants"
"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
"The Help"
"J. Edgar"
"War Horse"

On the Outside:

"Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy"
"Midnight in Paris"
"The Tree of Life"
"We Bought a Zoo"

Best Director

Clint Eastwood, "J. Edgar"
Michael Haznavicius, "The Artist"
Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life"
Alexander Payne, "The Descendants"
Steven Spielberg, "War Horse"

On the Outside:

Tate Taylor, "The Help"
Stephen Daldry, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"
Cameron Crowe, "We Bought a Zoo"

Is the "J. Edgar" trailer that bad? Personally, I don't think so. Di Caprio seems to be staying within a comfort zone, but that isn't surprising; it looks formal and business like, but that isn't surprising. When faced with political dramas it seems more likely to me that the Academy would choose "J. Edgar," a film about American politics and a prominent figure in particular, than the subtle aloof intricacies of Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," which is more arty and hard work. The odds on Eastwood's film being better are fairly slim, but otherwise nothing suggests to me that it isn't in a strong position going into the end of the season.

As the only one of these currently released "The Help" already has the mark of success, with decent critical praise, a ton of public approval, a handy mixture of light and shade to detail the Academy-friendly topics of race and prejudice. I really can't see it missing out given all of these collective factors. "The Artist" and "The Descendants" appear to be the titles exiting festivals with the biggest buzz, while Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" has the huge Pullitzer pedigree, a World War II setting, and a 'horse and his boy' story.

The wildcard pick here is "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," which reads on paper as fairly schematic and soapy, but it's written by Eric Roth of "Benjamin Button" approval and has an impressive cast. Lingering on the outside (this could be a list encompassing anything from five to ten nominees, remember) are the two aforementioned early-year releases by Woody Allen and Terrence Malick, both of which have many supporters and could emerge should some of those December titles falter.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"
Viola Davis, "The Help"
Felicity Jones, "Like Crazy"
Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"
Michelle Williams, "My Week With Marilyn"

On the Outside:

Charlize Theron, "Young Adult"
Keira Knightley, "A Dangerous Method"
Rooney Mara, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
Elizabeth Olsen, "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
Kirsten Dunst, "Melancholia"

Beyond Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, who have been hogging most of the buzz even as few people have seen "Albert Nobbs" and almost nobody has seen "The Iron Lady," this category looks to be up-in-the-air. All of the perceived main contenders have detractors: in the case of Jones and Olsen being unknowns in small, critically well-received dramas, in the case of Mara a film and persona that looks too dark and off-putting for the Academy, and in the case of Knightley divisive reviews on whether her performance hits or completely misses.

I toyed with including Knightley and Theron, who at least have been here before, but with "A Dangerous Method" seeming to lose buzz and "Young Adult" a complete unknown quantity at this stage, I decided to leave them out for now. "Like Crazy" has been building word since Sundance and Felicity Jones is an extremely likable actress in a baity role, so I could easily foresee her campaign getting stronger through the Autumn. Michelle Williams' fate is more difficult to predict, since people don't seem to be on board with her or the film at all, but once the reviews start spilling out there could be a nostalgia factor with the media. Especially since Marilyn never got an Oscar nomination herself.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

George Clooney, "The Descendants"
Leonardo Di Caprio, "J. Edgar"
Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"
Gary Oldman, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"
Michael Shannon, "Take Shelter"

On the Outside:

Woody Harrelson, "Rampart"
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "50/50"
Brad Pitt, "Moneyball"
Matt Damon, "We Bought a Zoo"
Michael Fassbender, "Shame"

It'd take a significant departure from George Clooney's usual middling, wry charm for him to wow me in "The Descendants" but when you're an Academy favourite, you're an Academy favourite, and this is a sympathetic role for him. Ditto Di Caprio, who has to be favourite to win, if only because there's virtually no biopic competition, and the fact that he's regarded as overdue by quite a few. But maybe not quite as overdue as Gary Oldman (certainly if we're talking in the British quarters) and even if "Tinker, Tailor..." contains his most withdrawn and crafted performance it'll probably be enough to get him a nomination for a film that's universally-respected.

From there, Jean Dujardin has the buzz, and if "The Artist" turns out to be the real deal among arthouse audiences and the older demographic then this doesn't seem an unlikely get. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the guarantee of a well-liked film and the hugely advantageous topic of cancer on his side, but he's still relatively young in terms of Best Actor nominees, so they could easily oversee him for older men in more high profile films -- like Tom Hanks or Matt Damon. But instead I see the fifth nominee being someone like Michael Shannon, who falls somewhere in the middle of all this mix of respectability, prestige, and acclaim. It's still a game of guessing.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Jessica Chastain, "The Help"
Judi Dench, "J. Edgar"
Janet McTeer, "Albert Nobbs"
Vanessa Redgrave, "Coriolanus"
Octavia Spencer, "The Help"

On the Outside:

Melanie Laurent, "Beginners"
Jessica Chastain, "Take Shelter"
Carey Mulligan, "Drive"/"Shame"
Marion Cotillard, "Midnight in Paris"
Shailene Woodley, "The Descendants"

Maybe I'm overestimating "The Help" a touch but I'm still confident about its chances across the board. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain both have roles as the funny, caretaking black woman and the ditzy white woman who confounds common stereotypes of her race. Chastain has too many films out this year when you consider how difficult it is for a new-on-the-scene actress to build an awards campaign with one film these days. But the performances themselves have been so well-liked, and this film is so well-liked, that this could legitimately happen for her.

Vanessa Redgrave's continued great notices for Shakespearian drama "Coriolanus" and Judi Dench's surprisingly prominent presence in the newly-released "J. Edgar" trailer both suggest that these perennial women of awards discussion can reappear for (perhaps) final nominations/wins. It's been twelve seasons since Janet McTeer managed her sole nomination for "Tumbleweeds" but a role opposite Glenn Close's cross-dressing butler has since renewed hopes of a second Osar outing. It's a difficult pick to be confident about given that nobody particularly liked "Albert Nobbs" and McTeer's presence doesn't have the comeback factor of her co-star. She could easily be completely overshadowed.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Jim Broadbent, "The Iron Lady"
Albert Brooks, "Drive"
Armie Hammer, "J. Edgar"
Tom Hardy, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"
Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"

On the Outside:

Nick Nolte, "Warrior"
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Ides of March"
Ben Kingsley, "Hugo"
Christoph Waltz, "Carnage"
Kenneth Branagh, "My Week With Marilyn"

I nearly predicted the popular Christoph Waltz, since he's been singled out as the best of the "Carnage" ensemble and may be becoming known as one of those reliable 'supporting' players after his Oscar win in that category, but ultimately "Carnage" doesn't look as if it's going to be the major contender it promised to be. The only solid reviews so far have been for Albert Brooks, Christopher Plummer, and Nick Nolte - the latter of which could easily make the five but who is in a film which, ironically, doesn't look as if it's going to last the distance.

Tom Hardy gives the second best performance in Tomas Alfredson's slow-burning espionage thriller (no mean feat!), but faces internal competition from Benedict Cumberbatch; Jim Broadbent is surely going to be stellar as the baity husband of Meryl's Thatcher, and if that "J. Edgar" trailer emphasises anything, it's that Armie Hammer is going to get more to do than afforded him in "The Social Network."

Best Original Screenplay

"The Artist"
"J. Edgar"
"Midnight in Paris"
"Win Win"

On the Outside:

"Young Adult"
"Like Crazy"
"Take Shelter"

Best Adapted Screenplay

"The Descendants"
"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"
"War Horse"

On the outside:

"The Help"
"We Bought a Zoo"
"The Ides of March"
"A Dangerous Method"

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Janet Gaynor

Janet Gaynor in "Street Angel"
Won the 1927-28 Best Actress Oscar (Also for "Seventh Heaven" and "Sunrise")

Grade: ****

Firstly I have to confess to being inexperienced with regard to silent films. The vast majority of those that I have seen were forced upon me as part of university modules, and subsequent attempts to watch renowned classics (Battleship Potemkin, Broken Blossoms etc.) have resulted in abandonment. For some reason it requires more effort for me to watch a film without audible dialogue than it does for, say, a film in which the dialogue is spoken in Greek or Russian. After watching “Street Angel” I feel even more bashful about my behaviour, since it exhibits many of the most appealing features of silent cinema; foremost, the wonder of visual storytelling, and also the way in which it manages to create a score that reflects the emotive shifts of the action on screen.

Janet Gaynor is most famously the Actress to win for not one, not two, but three performances in films made between 1927 and 1928 – one of the early anomalies that make Oscar statistics a pest to compile. While lovely in “Sunrise” the film and performance failed to bowl me over, but the situation is somewhat different with Frank Borzage’s “Street Angel,” a social commentary involving a woman driven to commit a crime through desperation, and blighted by that crime later in life. Borzage and Gaynor had a healthy relationship (he made two of the three films which garnered her triple Oscar win) and her presence on-camera is one that shows complete faith between director and performer.

While the film moves at such a rapid pace in the first twenty minutes this is mainly in order to outline the predicaments of Gaynor’s Angela, who deals with familial strife and a run-in with the law. Her brush with criminality forces a shift from the unassuming, loving daughter to a more hardened, downbeat view of the world, exacerbated when she runs off with a circus troupe and becomes a star there. Gaynor reveals Angela’s attitude towards men as distrusting and contemptuous through brazen dismissal of anything mushy and sentimental, and even if Borzage is far too eager to race to Angela’s romance with incoming vagabond painter Gino then Gaynor at least bridges the gap between the reserved contentment that dominates her character.

As a victim of poverty and what’s perceived to be society’s neglect of the working classes, Gaynor sustains a level of grace which gives the internal conflicts of Angela all the more eminence. In the film’s most testing plot device she escapes from her imprisonment at a workhouse in an unlikely reversal of fortune, the moment at which she is provided with a path to freedom handled with disbelieving trepidation. In theory this is as much of a moral decision for Angela than the act which initially landed her in hot water, and Gaynor palpably details the confluence of ethical and physical necessities in her character. This whole sequences takes up less than five minutes of “Street Angel,” but you somehow feel like Angela has been without her civil liberties for far longer.

Occasionally Gaynor may too adamantly telegraph emotional pining by exerting gestures of physical pain, and for substantial periods she’s re-iterating Angela’s heartache and shame when confronting men who expect better of her. But Gaynor does this with such operatic verve and introspective worth that “Street Angel” constantly flourishes under her careful guidance as a lost yet fascinatingly self-aware protagonist whose motivations derive from passion and love. A hard-hitting, perfectly pitched scene in which she finally addresses the implications of her actions lend Gaynor the opportunity to be particularly devastating in reaction to the reality of losing what’s close to her, and she certainly does not disappoint.

By all accounts, word seems to suggest that Gaynor was one of those actresses who somewhat lost out as a result of the advent of talkies, despite a 1937 nomination for the William Wellman-directed “A Star is Born.” She’s fine as Vicki Lester, but less impacting than in “Sunrise” and especially lacks the depth of feeling of this performance, which permeates so well as an embodiment of the social victim. Having seen two of Gaynor’s ’27-’28 triple-threat of pictures the jury’s still out as to whether her and Borzage are a marriage made in (Seventh) Heaven, but based on the resounding success of their partnership here, I wouldn’t bet against it. Keep an eye on the sidebar this coming week for a peek at whether she can make it 2 for 2.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: Villain (2010)

Directed by Sang-Il Lee
Starring: Eri Fukatsu, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Akira Emoto, Hikari Mitsushima, Masuo Keijo, Kirin Kiki, Masaki Okada
Grade: B

Japanese director Sang-Il Lee has seemingly decided to follow in the footsteps of his Korean peers with new murky crime thriller, "Villain." The film, about an unhinged young man's approach to sexual relationships, emulates the recent works of Bong Joon-ho and Lee Chang-dong - "Mother" and "Poetry" respectively - in so much as it details the impact of crime on the families of said criminals and where the blame behind their deeds resides. As a part of recent attempts to address the social and contextual factors attributed to spawning criminality, one would tentatively describe "Villain" as part of a cinematic trend, and foremost an indication that Asian cinema is providing alternatively rich perspectives on perceived societal evils.

When we first spy petrolhead Shimizu (Tsumabuki) he’s loitering at a gas station and looking thoroughly bored with existence. While he doesn’t loom as a particularly dangerous figure, his presence intimidates through what appears to be an ambivalent disassociation with his surroundings. This young man is an emotionless wildcard. And as we follow him on his journey to meet popular college girl Yoshino (Mitsushima) his thorough lack of belief in either himself or anyone else quickly comes to the fore. The night does not go well for Shimizu when Yoshino spurns his advances and takes off into the sunset with her local crush Masuo, and the discovery of her dead body the following morning raises serious questions. Is Shimizu the prime suspect in her murder?

The ensuing conflicts are separated between Shimizu confronting his involvement in Yoshino’s final hours, and the grief-stricken parents of the girl trying to gain perspective on how and why she died. When Shimizu is hunted down by police he flees home, aided-and-abetted by Mitsuyo (Fukatsu), a girl he met just days earlier in a random internet meeting. As his situation becomes increasingly precarious he and Mitsuyo develop a strong attachment, which leads them to go into hiding from the law and the world.

"Villain" achieves much emotional heft through its construction of Shimizu and Mitsuyo, two central characters with an inherently awkward lack of social skills and self-worth. Theirs is a connection founded upon solitude and necessity, both exhibiting impulsive and wildly off-kilter relationship ethics through having so far lived modest, sheltered lives. You can gauge a significant sense of backstory from even their first five minutes together, as they murmur sheepishly in a car with little sense of how to build a dynamic or engage beyond pleasantries and eventual physical gratification. Founded upon this partnership “Villain” succeeds as an interconnected would-be Shakespearian tragedy, very much a fresh take on the emotive aggression of youth but possessed with the bitter melancholia of classic works.