Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Women of 1975: Florinda Bolkan

Foreword: A special thanks to my partner-in-crime, Alex of Alex In Movieland, for getting his hands on this rare film for me. 

Florinda Bolkan in “A Brief Vacation”

Grade: ****

An actress I was previously unaware of, Brazilian star Florinda Bolkan caused quite a stir on the continent in 1975, as a downtrodden wife in Vittorio De Sica’s “A Brief Vacation.” A moderate success for De Sica, it charts a woman’s recovery from Tuberculosis in the clean air of the Italian mountains, comfortably away from her demanding husband, mother-in-law, and seven children. Very much indicative of the era, De Sica’s subject is a woman oppressed by society’s expectations of her, as well as the uncaring strain her family puts her under, falling firmly on the side of sympathy against the trappings of domesticity. Rising to the occasion, Bolkan earned the attention of the Los Angeles and New York film critics groups, who gave her their Best Actress prize and runner-up prize respectively.

Bolkan’s haggard appearance is one of forlorn resignation, her prior beauty evident in the noble structure of her face, but its perplexion discoloured, neglected, and unloved. Her character Clara has all but given up on being able to have a life, and it shows. De Sica zones in on Bolkan a lot towards the beginning of the film, the close-ups exposing the woman’s erratic surges between lethargic acceptance and heightened paranoia, as she crystallises Clara’s realisation on a bus to work that she may have left her child in mortal danger. The moment itself is a severe overreaction, affirming the emotional overdrive this woman is under, deprived of affection and enjoyment, living to work rather than working to live. You don’t have to clamour to establish Clara’s early frame-of-mind but Bolkan doesn’t quite hand it to you on a plate: hers is a fraught, lived-in impression of depression-through-routine, and it really works for establishing a connection to the character.

When Clara retreats to the mountains  and falls for love interest Luigi, the film gets a little bland and boggy in illustrating the couple’s tentative relationship. The casting of actor Daniel Quenaud as Luigi, however,  reads as a smart move, his anonymity as a presence quelling any sense of perspective for us but Clara’s, and encouraging Bolkan to further internalise the bubbling joy from this fresh dilemma. The script feels more insistent to implore a clearer sense of Clara’s love than Bolkan, who admirably resists telegraphing her affection as a foolhardy infatuation. The ever-present conscious of a former life floating within the confines of her performance, Bolkan maintains a steely inner crust until the final sequence of the film, where De Sica’s vicious circle crests to completion.

Accolades: Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Best Actress

                   New York Film Critics Circle, Best Actress (Runner Up)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Review Catch-Up: The Avengers/Mirror Mirror/21 Jump Street

(On behalf of whoever created the posters for these three films, I apologise.)

The Avengers
Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlet Johansson
Grade: C+

The word is ‘shattered.’ Buildings shattered; Glass shattered; Box-office shattered, and by the time “The Avengers’” forty-minute climactic action sequence had finished, I was shattered too. By now its name has already been etched in the record books, and this comic book adaptation (only the third of Marvel’s six that I’ve seen) remains the film on everybody’s lips. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a pleasant surprise that the Whedonian (?) humour hits really well, mocking each of the super hero supergroup for their faults – the impulsiveness of the Hulk; Captain America’s coveted sense of nobility; Iron Man’s artificiality, and Thor’s ancient outlook – and really uniting these characters as a force worth rooting for.

But while “Serenity,” with its pulsating, Western-plucked conceit felt as if an entire geographical landscape was waiting for its band of soldiers, “The Avengers” has a portal and a cube – neither of which, it seems, has a consistent, discernible function. The lazy plotting extends to villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston camping it up in a fresher mode than his lazy Snow King turn in Thor), whose motivations for wreaking havoc on the Earth are vague, and his cunning master plan the very essence of cautious passive aggression. All of this casts doubt on whether Whedon and cast have earned an extended finale, which bears more commonalities with the Transformers series than many are willing to admit. He has already proven again this year that he can be at the head of an excellent genre movie; Hopefully when people look back on 2012, they’ll realise “The Avengers” isn’t it.

Mirror Mirror
Directed by Tarsem
Starring: Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer
Grade: B

If the upcoming “Snow White and the Huntsman” looks to be the gothic offering cornering moody teen girls, “Mirror Mirror” is its distant, eager relative, hopscotching through the Grimm brothers’ tale with keen, cynical aim. Julia Roberts’ Wicked Queen never once directly asks her pithy magic mirror who the fairest of them all is, but this update of the story is still strenuously camp, with Armie Hammer’s Prince dashing around with the crazed aimlessness of James Marsden’s Prince Charming in “Enchanted” (with considerably funnier results) and the late Eiko Ishioka’s awesome costumes putting a fairytale spin on Euro-royal court attire.

“Mirror Mirror” is essentially a revisionist piece, but doesn’t overhaul this legendary story, giving Snow White added motivation, a stronger sense of self-sufficiency, and an active role in cultivating her own happiness, but still promoting an ideology which sees beauty as a product of one’s own personality as much as their external appearance. In part a reaction to this narrative formula remaining so ingrained within artifacts of popular culture, “Mirror Mirror” opts for shapeshifting (and yes, admittedly conservative) juxtapositions of setting, pitting dark wildnerness against candy-cane domesticity to arresting, delightful results. With derisive reaction to “The Cell” and “The Fall,” Tarsem is fast becoming the most criminally undervalued auteur among critics. You can add “Mirror Mirror” to that list, too.

“21 Jump Street”
Directed by Starring: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube
Grade: B -

In an era in which a film like “The Hangover” is regarded as a bastion of the young male community, it’s difficult to whip up excitement for a studio’s latest round of boysy humour. Were it not for the overly positive word from writers I respect and admire, I wouldn’t have even chanced “21 Jump Street,” the latest past-it TV series to get a big screen adaptation, but as it happens I’m pleased that I did. A story of two young men separated by high school hierarchy but united in later life through their desire to join the police force, “21 Jump Street” quickly asserts the strengths and weaknesses of its pairing of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, who, as best buds, are forced to go undercover as students, and assigned the task of infiltrating a network of drug suppliers at a local high school.

“21 Jump Street” still resorts to generate comedy from familiar stereotypes and cliches, such as the duo’s strict African-American police chief (a periodically funny Ice Cube), who grasps at any opportunity to poke fun at the duo, and one particular drug-induced sequence which affords Hill and Tatum the opportunity to go all-out. What’s refreshing about the approach of the film towards masculine inadequacy is that intimacy and feelings aren’t dismissed as a form of weakness. “21 Jump Street” uses physical comedy between the two in a way which feels harmlessly awkward rather than a grotesque form of homophobic paranoia. These friends are comfortable with each other’s flaws and generally aware of where to draw the line between jovial teasing and outright cruelty, and consequently the humour comes off as more balanced and honest than abrasive slinging of insults potentially would have. This film may not be revolutionary, but it’s one of the most valuable cinematic depictions of ‘bromance’ yet.

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Women of 1975: Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn in “Rooster Cogburn”

Grade: *

While Henry Hathaway’s “True Grit” was the film which landed a career Oscar for Western stalwart John Wayne it wasn’t coveted by all, so when a repeat outing for Wayne’s barmy Marshall character Rooster Cogburn was announced in 1974, it raised more than a few eyebrows. Naming the sequel after Cogburn himself, and casting Katharine Hepburn as the Christian puritan opposing his every reckless vice, the film recalls the premise of John Huston’s “The African Queen,” in which Hepburn also played an uptight missionary facing off against a whisky-swilling renegade. It didn’t have nearly the same success as “Queen,” instigating mixed notices from critics and only mild awards buzz for the then-68 year-old Hepburn. 

 The overwhelming hurdle for “Rooster Cogburn” (and indeed Rooster Cogburn himself) is that the film expects us to find worth in spending time with this character, whose alarming ideology reveals a cutthroat attitude towards political justice and becomes the film’s coup-de-grâce towards dismantling pacifism. Wayne’s maverick drunkard offers far less nuance than Humphrey Bogart famously procured but Hepburn is still required to dish out a mix of ethical disdain and mild fascination in response to the incompetence of her co-star, undergoing a journey which sees her actively engage in violence as a necessity despite being firmly opposed to it as a solution. 

As Mattie Ross’s noble mettle becomes less and less convincing in “True Grit” (and that goes for either version) so too does Hepburn as Eula Goodnight; self-righteous, funny, and, yes, spirited, in the fiery, en garde manner which only she can really muster, but discouragingly disciplined in the way that she haughtily observes the ruckus around her, rather as if it’s an extension of having to slum it with a film and character below her abilities. Wearily resigned to being the sidekick with the arc, Hepburn offers little in the way of incisive backstory, content to ride alongside Wayne while the makeshift fortifications of her moralistic crusader easily crumble.