Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Solid Support - John Hawkes

Watching the excellent drama Winter’s Bone for other day, I was instantly bowled over by the assured and confident central performance from twenty year-old Jennifer Lawrence. She’s bound to be a shoo-in for a Best Actress nomination at next year’s Academy Awards (and rightly so), but there’s another cast member who is as equally impressive and believable, the character actor John Hawkes. 

In the role of Lawrence’s drug-addled uncle, Teardrop, he’s almost unrecognisable here with his greying beard and gaunt (more so than usual), lived-in tattooed face. Every time he appears on screen (particularly with Lawrence) there’s a palpable feeling of tension, as you’re unsure as to how he will react to his niece’s stoic persistence in tracking down her father (his brother) who’s disappeared following his release from bail. There’s an uneasy mix of menace and tenderness in Hawkes eyes throughout the film, and even though he is of small statute, he commands the screen whenever he appears on it, and looks every bit the scruffy, edgy backwater criminal he’s portraying.

Comparing Hawkes’ appearance here to that of his role in Miranda July’s indie/arthouse quirk-fest, Me and You and Everyone We Know, (where he plays a sweet, downtrodden shoe salesman who’s been left to pick up the pieces of a marriage in tatters and look after his two young sons) and his chameleon-like abilities are even more than apparent. Occupying that traditional character-actor attribute of having one of those faces you've seen before without knowing the name, he deserves to be in the Philip Seymour Hoffman league of being recognised in person, alongside the work.                  

My first exposure to this Minnesota-born actor and musician was his small role at the beginning of 1996’s Dusk till Dawn (although his IMDB page lists a body of work that stretches back to over a decade prior to Rodriguez’s Tex Mex vampire flick). For a film loaded with memorable bit-players and a wealth of quotable scenes, Hawkes really stands out in what is a brief screen appearance as Pete, the hapless liquor store employee whose composure is severely tested as he deals with both the local law enforcement and the ruthless Gecko brothers.

His career choices after Dusk till Dawn have seen him appear in (and in doing so enhancing the quality of) bigger-budgeted ensemble dramas like The Perfect Storm, Identity and American Gangster, and smaller, more intimate pictures (like July’s debut). He was even part of the cast in the HBO series Deadwood and the channel’s recent, highly praised comedy Eastbound and Down (where he was happy to play second fiddle to star Danny McBride’s hilariously bloated and grotesque persona of disgraced ex-baseball star Kenny Powers).

Looking at the current crop of films he has in production, he’ll again be in the company of a large Hollywood cast (the upcoming Steven Soderbergh virus on the run action-thriller Contagion), which features the immaculately groomed visages of Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow, amongst many others. I’m sure he doesn’t mind doing work like this (an actors gotta eat!) and as long as he can keep balancing these parts with more edge fare like Winter’s Bone, I think he could be in the position to take the mantle of this generation’s Harry Dean Stanton.

Like Stanton, he seems to be finding the meatier parts as he gets older (at 51, Hawkes is only two years younger than Stanton was when he showed up in Alien), and he also shares another similarity to the now octogenarian screen veteran, in that his name in the credits of a film and TV programme will always cause me to sit up and take notice, regardless of the quality.  

Monday, 19 July 2010

A tale of two Predators

Once upon a time, there was a young and upcoming filmmaker by the name of Robert Rodriguez who, flush from the success of his no-budget Spanish-language debut and its subsequent sequel/re-make, was asked by the Twentieth Century Fox studio to write a follow-up to the original Predator film, keeping with the jungle premise from the first one. The young director’s films had a real vim and vigour about them and what they lacked in a cohesive plot, they more than made up for with their real sense of fun and excitement.

The great and powerful Austrian giant Arnold Schwarzenegger (star of the original film) decided against being in the next one, and so the script was resigned to a shelf where it sat for many, many years, only to be dusted off by the young filmmaker, who was now a fully-fledged big-name director. He agreed to have it re-written and produced the film himself through his own company, for the all powerful Fox studio.

And they all lived happily ever after……… except they didn’t.

Although handing the directing chores over to one of his loyal servants, the film had none of the quirkiness or imagination which characterised the director’s own work. What had been assembled instead was a ‘Mcfilm’ which the faraway land of Hollywood was becoming increasingly good at churning out. There was no actual real human interaction or dialogue spoken between the actors - all they did was spout exposition back and forth for the film’s duration (one of them even resorting to the age-old cliché of showing a picture of his cute kids to his comrades, before succumbing to the alien).

Some fans of the original decided to come out and support the new film anyway, regardless to how bad it was. Most, having seen District 9 the previous summer, knew that you could still make an exciting genre picture with a relatively low budget and not have to resort to making an uninspired retread of the original (with the added bonus of having three extra Predators!)

Some couldn’t give a shit if the film did or didn’t stand up to the original, a film which they had enjoyed as children – they just want to be entertained for 90 minutes.

The end.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Death Row Cinema Show

Reading the story of a inmate on death row who asked to watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy as his final request immediately made me think of what I would pick in that situation. Would I go for a film or film series with a long running time to prolong the inevitable, or would I opt for quality over quantity instead, or try for both?

The Lord of the Rings films actually seem like a reasonable choice and I would put in a cheeky request to have the director’s cut versions, which would bump the total viewing time up to another hour or two. I would probably be in the mood for some big Hollywood fantasy storytelling and these films would be perfect escapism, ideal I would have thought for someone in this awful situation. There are two problems here however. Due to Return of the King having a multitude of false ending, I can imagine the annoyance at constantly preparing myself to be collected from my cell, only to then be presented with another ten minute corny sequence of Samwise Gamgee or some other Hobbit, getting it on with, and marrying his female conquest back at the Shire. Also, due to the catharsis brought on by watching all three films together and the emotional send-off Frodo receives at the final, proper ending, I would be a right mess when the priest rocked up.

The Decalogue (Dekalog), consisting of ten one-hour films, each of which represents one of the Ten Commandments, would give me the time and intellectual nourishment I may require.  Created by the late Polish film-maker Krzysztof Kieślowski (for the uninitiated, Pulp Fiction beat his film, Three Colours Red, to the Palme d'Or in Cannes), it would be a long haul, but I would be watching a true master at work. The potentially big obstacle here would be in the form of the fifth part (re-titled A Short Film About Killing for theatrical release). It centres on a young man who murders a taxi driver and is eventually executed. This alone would be too much, but with another five to get though before permanent lights out, those hours could prove excruciating.

The Shawshank Redemption, a firm favourite amongst men of all social standing, is probably a little too obvious, plus the last thing you would want to see on death row (and indeed prison) would be an escape to freedom, complete with a nice boat in a sunny climate and Morgan Freeman for permanent company.

Ultimately, I think I would have to go the safe route and pick the original Star Wars trilogy (or if they wanted to save time and money on my execution, I could watched Jar-Jar and co. too which would probably spur me on to take my own life). One of my earliest memories was a trip to the cinema to see A New Hope and as my life would end after seeing the rebels defeat the evil empire and party down at Endor in Return of the Jedi, there would be a nice symmetry here.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The Goonies Strikes Back to the Future

Three perennial childhood favourites, The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future and The Goonies, are celebrating anniversaries this summer (Empire is 30 while the others are both 25).

When did I get so old?

It’s hard to imagine any big summer popcorn films of recent years (with the exception of Star Trek and The Dark Knight perhaps) still being celebrated in a couple of decade’s time. It’s interesting that a film like The Goonies still has legs even though it’s essentially a dippy little kid’s film. Its popularity lies in the fact that it has heart and a real sense of wonderment - something the Spielberg-produced stuff of that era strived for and mostly delivered, and something which is very much missing from films nowadays. I still have much fondness for The Goonies (having actually gone to see it for my 9th birthday), but there’s one scene at the end that I always had real trouble with. I’m sure Chunk’s father would have taken serious issue with the prospect of having mental man-mountain Sloth become a permanent member of the family. I know you’re supposed to suspend your disbelief at the movies, but even he would have put his foot down at the merest hint of becoming a surrogate daddy to that.

“No...I am your father!” Empire has perhaps the most perfect three-act structure in any sci-fi film ever and, alongside Dill whipping out a wiener in The Crying Game, it concludes with the greatest twist/reveal of all time. In fact, it’s stuffed with so many amazing scenes you almost wish in hindsight that Lucas would had squirreled some away to distribute around the later instalments. For a film brimming with wondrous moments, my favourite still remains the introduction of Yoda. The scenes on his home planet really are the stuff of movie magic. Not only do you completely buy this little muppet as a living, breathing character, but you also believe that this now shrivelled, rather sad-looking creature in front of you was once an all powerful Jedi Master (until, devastatingly, Attack Of the Clones needlessly and unimaginatively filled in the blanks).

Having won a VHS copy of Back to the Future in the national press when it was first released on rental, I was the envy of everyone at school and was even able to use this prized possession as leverage in gaining more ‘friends’ at the time. It’s easy to see why it was (and still is) loved by so many. Another entry from Stevie’s talent-nurturing, hit-making Amblin (where is the modern day equivalent?!), this is near perfect Hollywood film-making – from the tight, extremely well-constructed script to the faultless pacing and fun performances. Even after all those years, director Robert Zemeckis has yet to surpass this in terms of purely joyous entertainment.

I have to say, these films seem like genuine anomalies now. I suppose all we can hope for is that after the abysmal line-up of summer films so far this year - and with the web coverage and love these classics have been receiving - Hollywood will take note of its past achievements during this season and try to deliver something to their quality again.

Oh dear. Did I just write that last paragraph? You’ll have to forgive me - early senility can also be a by-product of growing older.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

You’ll believe a man can flap

Everyone has films from childhood which are still planted firmly into their subconscious. They're able to hum the cheesy theme tune and quote huge chunks of obscure dialogue in a heartbeat. The thing I love about some of these is they didn’t necessarily have any critical cache and were far from capturing the zeitgeist like Star Wars. Some of those films I remember so fondly didn’t leave much of mark at all.

Taking with my friend the other day, I was surprised that he was unaware of a film I thoroughly enjoyed as a young child – the permanent bank holiday fixture that was Condorman. Made by Disney in 1981, it looks like they tried to cash-in on a number of popular franchises and pop culture of the time. Coming off as a kind of Bond/Batman hybrid, with elements of Indiana Jones (particularly in the main characters globe-trotting escapades) the premise itself is quite intriguing even if it takes an incredible amount of suspension of disbelief (which, fortunately, I had bags of as a child). It’s the story of a cartoonist who is enlisted by his friend from the CIA to work undercover (see what I mean) and begins to bring his comic book creation ‘Condorman’ into the equation as an alter ego.

Where childhood favourites like The Last Starfighter and Explorers were well-made pieces of Hollywood escapism and still hold up now, Condorman is as clunky looking as when I first saw it, and still as endearing because of that.

This could be due, in part, to the bizarre casting of British stage show thesp Michael Crawford in the title role. Looking back at the big US box office draws in the early 80’s, and even the popular character actors, I’m mystified how he actually managed to get cast. The character is supposed to be an everyman type and Crawford certainly fits that bill, as the performance here is pretty similar to his turn as accident prone Frank Spencer in the ‘classic’ 1970’s BBC sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. Maybe Disney executives at the time were fans of that type of antiquated British slapstick humour, still loved by the kind of people who have a nostalgic yearning for those simpler times (read: anyone over  the age of sixty).   

It’s not the only film where I have my critical blinkers on (hello Runaway, Mannequin, Superman III, plus many more from that era), and I’m happy I can still look at these in a purely entertaining way, free from any kind of analysis. These films came into existence in a time where my quality control was almost zero (although I instinctively knew that Howard the Duck was a steaming pile of dog-doo) and that’s the way it should be. The simple pleasure of watching a man dressed in a ridiculous-looking bird costume with wings, leaping off a tall building with the heroine in tow (all shot against terrible blue-screen), was adequate for me.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Mumble awe

Purely by coincidence and not in some sad attempt to bolster my hip indie-film awareness credentials, I recently watched two films from the Mumblecore collective (Humpday and Beeswax) within a week of each other. Mumblecore, a very evocative title (actually coined by a sound editor on one of the early films) reflects, to some extent, the semi-improvisational, sometimes inaudible speech inflections of the actors involved.

Having watched an early effort from this sub-genre at the ICA a couple of years back (Andrew Bujalski’s debut Funny Ha Ha), I was really impressed by the naturalistic tone and performances on display. Bujalski’s characters in both this and his second feature, Mutual Appreciation, are within my age group, and he taps into the whole post-university malaise that I certainly felt. It was also incredibly refreshing to see a filmmaker with complete autonomy over his work, far from the pull of Hollywood. Even the closing credits were hand-written in pencil! This way of film-making may not be revelatory (John Cassavetes was knocking out thematically-similar work, outside of the system, thirty years earlier), but it’s just nice to see it done for my generation, particularly amidst the major studio’s gentrification of the independent scene.

I came across The Puffy Chair courtesy of Film4 a couple of months later, and although more structured in terms of plotting and story, this was another example of film-makers who were interested in eliciting realistic and honest performances from their cast, and placing them in familiar and relatable scenarios. Written and directed by two brothers, Mark and Jay Duplass, (Mark also acts and co-starred in Humpday) It’s a funny and warm tale which taps into the all too recognisable theme of the imperfections in love and relationships. The artistic partnership here really helps to create an intimate environment, and this extends to the other films, where there is a real comradery between the different filmmakers and a strong sense of a creative community. Many take turns in acting in one another’s films and assist on shoots. It’s the kind of supportive environment which in an ideal world, should be the next evolutionary step up for students has have finished a filmmaking degree and are intent on carving out a career for themselves.

Fringe movements like this almost inevitably at some point end of dipping their toe in the Hollywood mainstream. A couple of actors from the scene (leading female figure Greta Gerwig and Duplass again) crop up in Noah Baumbach’s new feature Greenberg, and I’m looking forward to seeing them share screen time with more recognised mainstream performers like Ben Stiller and Rhys Ifans. The Duplass brothers have their first studio film ready, which received a warm reception at Sundance this year. Judging by the trailers and reviews, they seemed to have been able to maintain their style, but instead of having unknowns, seasoned actors like John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei are now headlining. This for me is the exciting part of any kind of art movement - when there is the opportunity to infiltrate the mainstream and still remain essentially true to the core ideology.

Long may they mumble.

Also worth checking out:
In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2008)

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Toy story

In the midst of social upheaval and a country in the grip of change, I settled down to watch one of last summer’s blockbusters which I missed the first time around at the cinema – GI Joe. By miss I actually mean strenuously avoided until someone I met recently gave it a hearty endorsement, triggering in me a perverse desire to seek it out. Apart from the all too obvious monetary benefits, I find it really bizarre that Hollywood has now started to produce films based on childhood toy favourites. The term ‘brand aware’ gets banded around as the chief selling point, but it’s not like I still have a real curiosity to see to my old playthings get a feature film makeover. Unlike a book adaptation, I couldn’t imagine watching these films and thinking that characters didn’t translate to screen as well as I would have imagined when I once played with them - that disappointingly, the same nuances and behaviour I projected on them as a seven year-old hadn’t quite been captured by the filmmakers (although I think that was probably achieved with GI Joe actually).

Unsurprisingly, the film turned out pretty much how I expected. Still, partially at least, it managed to entertain under the old ‘so bad, it’s entertaining’ adage. It’s both a homage to and recreation of the terrible 80’s action flicks that, as a youth, I happily splurged my pocket money on at the video shop. Perhaps surprisingly though, there’s more of a dumbed-down feeling here. Plot exposition reaches new and exhaustive levels, where every character feels the need to explain every piece of action unfolding right in from of their (and our) eyes. It’s like an alternative, spoken version of the hard-of-hearing sign language guides you sometimes see at the bottom of the screen on late-night TV programmes. The characters enter a hanger which clearly houses a huge jet, filling the frame - someone proclaims there is a jet in front of them. The good guys wonder which iconic Parisian landmark the bad guys are planning on destroying as a prolonged shot (at six seconds, making it the longest in the film) of the Eiffel Tower lingers in the background. Weird little throwaway flashbacks are used too, as some kind of attempt at building character’s back stories and motivations. This includes a series of mini Kill Bill-esque scenes, featuring the origin, training and eventual betrayal between two warring ninjas, all roughly amounting up to a minute and a half of screen time. I also loved the flashback to The Duke (Channing Tatum) with his sweetheart, before her traitorous actions tear them apart (everyone is double-crossing every other character in this film). The scene has the two of them dancing to the jive in some old ballroom, while he’s wearing an old-fashioned GI outfit. It looks like something from a 50’s wartime melodrama and is completely and hilariously at odds with the rest of the film’s pseudo-futuristic look.

With the exception of Tatum who thinks he’s in Platoon 2, everyone involved appears utterly aware of that they are making. When you have a serious indie actor like Joseph Gordon Lovett (playing Cobra Commander) shamelessly mugging to the camera so much so, that he never looks like he’s taking one shred of it seriously, you know the kind of tone this film is aiming for. There’s a scene with Dennis Quaid, leader of Joes delivering the stirring, call-to-arms speech to his team, with a distractingly obvious and knowing smile plastered across his face throughout. You can imagine him saying “this has to be the take used, right?” immediately after cut has been yelled. In fact, every actor looks like they’re on the cusp of bursting into fits of laughter most of the time, especially during the more ‘emotional’ scenes. Given all this, it’s pretty difficult to inflict too much criticism.

Maybe this film is an example of the literal infantilisation of Hollywood, with director Steven Sommers applying the theory that it’s all just an extension of the box of toys he possessed as a child, playing with the actors the same way as he did with those pieces of moulded plastic with poseable limbs. I can see him now hunched over his monitor, thumb in mouth, receiving a friendly child-like ruffle of his hair from the actors and DOP after a take.

When you think of the money he had at his disposal and that literally within the space of a couple of months, this was churned out by the same studio which made Star Trek, it begins to get a little worrying. There will always be people arguing that it’s a film based on a toy range, so what’s to be expected? This is true to a certain extent, but as this has also been obviously pitched to a nostalgic, older male demographic, that excuse is a huge copout really. Still, if this is what filmmakers and studio accept as good product from which you can also reap huge financial rewards, then there’s hope for all aspiring film-makers out there, from ages 6+ onwards.

Monday, 29 March 2010

The Blunder Years

For someone who during his school years, possessed zero co-ordination skills, instead seeking solace in comics and fantasy films, and was more than a few times on the receiving end of the dreaded “I like you as a friend” rebuff when asking girls out, I feel a particular kinship towards the short lived, eighties-set coming of age ‘dramedy’ Freaks and Geeks. In fact, having watched all the episodes (only eighteen were produced) with my girlfriend, the sense of sadness and loss I now feel is greater to than when I finally got to the end of The Wire.

For those who haven’t seen or heard of this series before, the lazy shorthand way to describe it would be “it’s The Wonder Years meets Dazed and Confused” but that really does the show a massive injustice. Created by future Hollywood one-man comedy factory ,Judd Apatow, the freaks and geeks of the title are two social groups who exist on the outside fringe of popular high school society. Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) is a straight-A student and a dedicated ‘mathelite’ who’s growing desire to rebel and forge his own identify leads to hanging out with the freaks - a band of misfits, including one Seth Rogen (looking really young), whose exchanges literally take place under the school stairs and sports stands (I believe ‘bleachers’ is the correct US term) - these setting cleverly reflecting the groups own social standing. Lindsey’s younger brother Sam (Bones regular John Francis Daley) is part of the trio of Dungeons & Dragons playing, sci-fi loving geeks. The two siblings act as the main focal point for each group, and we also get the chance to see the changes at home as their parents feature in each episode.

One aspect of the show which I found particularly impressive is the darker tone and the depiction of kids living outside the accepted norm - something which is not really represented in this genre. Presumably this was part of the reason why it didn’t catch on with the mainstream. The familiar twin adolescent themes of acceptance and alienation are instantly recognisable and have been covered in other shows before, but it’s done here without the usual clichéd ‘life lessons learned’ moments and with dialogue which hasn’t been written by adults who have no actual memory of what it was like to have lived and talked as a teenager, choosing instead to showcase their verbal dexterity (Dawson’s Creek scribe Kevin Williams is one such culprit, amongst many others). Conflicts here go unresolved and the school experience is never given a sugar-coated treatment. To say I was a huge fan of The Wonder Years growing up would be a vast understatement, but having revisited a number of episodes recently, I found it hard to swallow some of Kevin Arnold’s more wistful and overly-sentimental voice over and some of the more syrupy content.

Freaks and Geeks has only had a limited showing over here in the UK, and to very little fanfare. This is a real shame because aside from being well-written and incredibly astute in its observations of teenage hardship, the ensemble cast are amazing. Having seen all of Apatow’s work on the big screen beforehand, it was a nice surprise to see the number of actors here who have gone on to populate his films. Amongst the standouts (and there are many) is Martin Starr. Playing one of the geeks, he delivers a brave and vanity-free performance which alternates between hilarity and heartbreak, sometimes in the same episode.  In fact, it’s a performance that is so on the money, I can only guess that he was somewhat living the part. Starr was the housemate who was ridiculed for refusing to shave his beard in Knocked Up, and I’ve seen him in other smaller comedic roles, mostly within the Apatow-produced stuff. Full-blown stardom can’t be far around the corner - he could easily carry a film like Rogen and Jason Segal (another successful cast member to go onto bigger things).

Perhaps the best comment on love and relationships during the teenage years can be found in an episode which involves Sam finally realising he doesn’t have anything in common with his dream girl, who he’s managed to start dating. He takes her to see The Jerk which she doesn’t find remotely funny, arguing that “it’s just dumb” when challenged by Sam. It’s perfect in its simplicity. There’s no big dramatic break-up scene where the two contemplate a life without each other and feel the need to explain away their differences in agonising detail (I’m paddling back up that Creek again). Just as The Wonder Years turned me onto all kinds of music from that era, Freaks and Geeks has a great selection of music which really helps to compliment the strong period detail established. It’s also led me to download a number of tracks by self-indulgent, delightfully over-the-top progressive rock masters like Rush and Styx.

Above all, Freaks and Geeks is an engaging slice of nostalgia which champions diversity and illustrates the notion that your social status and attitude in school doesn’t necessarily reflect how you will turn out in later life. If only this programme had been made a decades or so earlier, it may have made my transition from adolescent through to adulthood much smoother.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Stuff I own on Region 1

3. Lone Star

It’s truly puzzling when films like this are readily available in the Region 2 format and this John Sayles gem from 1996 isn’t. It’s a fantastic movie and up there with Matewan as Sayles’ greatest work.

The usual ingredients of his films are present here – astute social commentary, a brilliant ensemble cast and riveting dialogue - but all this is also framed within an intriguing and engrossing murder mystery, which begins when old bones belonging to a racist sheriff who vanished without trace decades before, are found. This discovery stirs up old feelings and secrets within a mixed American and Mexican community. Sayles regular Chris Cooper plays the sheriff of the town who suspects his own late father, the sheriff before him, of having a hand in his colleague’s death.

Matthew McConaughey plays the role of Cooper’s father, giving a truly commanding performance in the beautifully staged flashback sequences. Why McConaughey has sullied his career by starring almost exclusively in crappy, lifeless romantic comedies is beyond me. This role, together with his turn in Dazed and Confused, really signalled the arrival of an actor who had the potential to encapsulate the style of classic Hollywood players like Newman and McQueen. Shame.

Seek this out if you can as it really deserves to be seen.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

A cinematic coming-out tale or: How I stopped worrying and learned to embrace my inner geek

“I’ve got one for you - what was the real name of the black guy in Aliens?” This was the question fired at me by a work colleague and fellow film enthusiast back in my early twenties. He knew of course, and so did I, although I wasn’t letting on. Yaphet Kotto was the actor in question (a name which admittedly, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue). I first knew of him as the freaky Bond villain in Live and Let Die, and later as the third lead in Paul Schrader’s directorial debut Blue Collar - a film I admired greatly. Also, he was one of the heavies who met an early demise at the hands of Schwarzenegger on the hunt for his kidnapped daughter “Chenni” in the classic Commando. No wait…..that was Bill Duke. Kotto played opposite Arnie in The Running Man (with Duke subsequently going on to star with Arnie again in Predator, alongside another Running Man co-star, Jessie Ventura). I was well aware of Yaphet Kotto and his films, but all I did was feign forgetfulness and eventually stuttered “is it someone who name begins with Y or something?”

Back then, I considered my encyclopaedic film knowledge more of a curse than a blessing. Having recently starting seeing my first, long-term serious girlfriend, I felt I had to keep my passion largely suppressed, as I was initially afraid that she may be put off. As a result of this, I would find myself in social situations with her, grinning through clenched teeth when someone in our company made a filmic faux-pas that I knew I could easily rectify.

When a rabid football supporter names his or her children after favourite players, no one bats an eyelid. If I were to christen my new-born Martin Quentin Ethan Wes Joel Paul Thomas Lowes, I would be mocked and ridiculed till the end of my time on this earth. I’ve never heard the term ‘footy geek’ (or even ‘sports geek’ for that matter), banded around as an insult. Is it because sports are seen as a more mainstream and masculine pursuit, as opposed to the cineaste, who festers away fervently absorbing vast quantities of films, usually within the constraints of a dark room?

Two things eventually helped me to reveal what I had been concealing for so long. Although I had a couple of friends who were as well-versed in cinema as myself, it was the internet where I finally discovered that not only were there thousands of likewise geeks (some who possessed an even richer degree of filmic knowledge), but that some were actually making a fantastic career out of it, reaching a huge amount of fans via a grass-roots level and gaining levels of readership that the esteemed, old-school circle of film critics could only dream of. Secondly, there came a point as I reached my mid-twenties when the devastating realisation that I would never attain anywhere near the Fonz-level of cool I had once dreamed of, finally dawned on me. It was time to come to terms with who I was.

Nowadays I’m only too happy to wax lyrical about the latest Coen brothers feature to anyone in earshot, regardless to whether they’re interested or not. The number of hours devoted to reading film news and gossip on-line and the constant cross-referencing on IMDB is sometimes frowned upon but otherwise accepted by my other half who amazingly, still wanted to share her life with me after I revealed everything to her in the early stages of our relationship. Although being much more open about my love for cinema in general, I have found a way to keep a lid on it sometimes, in much the same way as Bruce Banner fights to attain the ability to control his inner urges and preventing himself from ‘Hulking out’.

Just don’t try and convince me that Michael Bay is an underappreciated auteur. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Hacyon days of Horror

Skim-viewing a couple of old horror films from the ‘video nasties’ era recently, it made me realise how much censorship and film-viewing has changed in this modern age. The films in question were Zombie Flesh Eaters from cult Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci, and the then notorious Cannibal Ferox. Both, inevitably, have dated somewhat, but are competently made and feature some truly gory scenes (Flesh Eaters also provided an amazing sequence which even managed to make this jaded viewer sit up and take note - a zombie, while underwater, mounts an attack on an actual shark!). It’s hard to believe that a lauded, award-winning studio horror film like The Exorcist was denied a video certification in the same era as these two.

Back in my school days, these were the types of films which kids bragged about seeing, their over-stimulated imaginations embellishing the already horrific content. Even kids who hadn’t seen the films would attempt offer a blow-by-blow account of the narrative, relying on word-of-mouth and Chinese whispers, thus adding to the intrigue at the same time. Without doubt, all this helped to cement the (unjust) bad reputation these films received. In the rare occasion that a grubby horror VHS crossed your path, you would usually assemble your group of similarly minded friends so you could all partake in this illicit and thrilling viewing experience together.

Today, five minutes worth of Takashi Miike’s 2002 gorefest, Ichi the Killer (wildly available on DVD) contains more dismemberment, sexual depravity and outright gore than the entire back catalogue of these earlier films - something that doesn’t seem to bother a knowing, modern audience. While CG effects can be repulsively efficient, we are subconsciously aware that what we are seeing has been created digitally (although the advent of Avatar may change this). Back in the day, in-camera effects definitely added an extra squirm factor and were effective enough to send the censers into a spin.

Cannibal Ferox, a precursor to the likes of the Blair Witch Project, with its pseudo-documentary content, was minus the heavily-marketed campaign that its predecessor relied in an attempt to blur the line between reality and fiction. The eventual media over-saturation of the Blair Witch whittled away any initial mystery about its origins. Niche marketing of titles like ‘Ferox’ was non-existent back then, which helped maintain a welcomed level of mystery. Now, you are always a mouse click away from scenes of real death and violence, thus rendered this idea of ‘found footage’ pretty much redundant. The web has also contributed to the loss of intrigue surrounding films as fan pages and downloads galore ensures that once hard to obtain material is immediately downloadable. Ironically, I even watched the two films above on my friend’s PC. To counteract this, and on a pleasingly retro note, I had the chance recently to watch a ripped, muddy-looking copy of the latest Rambo film on DVD. This added nicely to the overall effect that I was back in 88’, watching an old-school shlocky action-adventure, enhancing my appreciation of an overwise crappy film.

I wonder how the next generation of curious film aficionados would have reacted to modern horror films, particularly those in the ‘torture porn’ sub-genre, if they had been presented to them as a shoddy, several generations-old VHS tape, with little or no knowledge of the content beforehand. Would these films (many of which with the exception of the two Hostel flicks, have now disappeared from the cultural radar completely) have achieved a similar mythical status?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Coasting along on Cruise-control

Watching Magnolia at the weekend for the first time in ages, reminded me of the genius of Paul Thomas Anderson, a fresh-faced 30 years old when he made it (this fact alone is enough to send me into a spiralling depression). It’s an astonishing and audacious film, and while the entire ensemble delivers award-worthy performances, it’s Tom Cruise who stands out in particular. As sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey, delivering his now-famous “Respect the cock and tame the cunt!” mantra (which has been sampled on numerous house music tracks) to a testosterone-fuelled conference room, it’s like watching a new, exciting version of the actor perform.

As impressive as this first sequence is, it’s the stripping away of his bloated and grotesquely self-assured façade, during an interview where his past life is unearthed, where Cruise really shows what he’s capable of as an actor. Anderson must have tread where others had previously failed (or feared) to do so, and talked to Cruise about bringing his own personal history of paternal estrangement to the character. It’s a theme throughout the film and one which occupies the latter part of his arc, when Mackey manages to do what Cruise couldn’t, and reach sort kind of closure with his dying father. What we also see in the interview scene is the kind of meltdown which Cruise the person (before the notorious ‘couch-hopping’ incident) had strenuously avoided in his own professional career, achieved mainly on his reliance of a meticulously guarded PR team. Subverting the public’s perceptions of him and free of his own self-enforced safety net, Cruise is mesmerising.

It’s not the only time he’s stretched himself as Born on the Fourth of July demonstrated ten years earlier. An attempt by Cruise to shed his poster boy image, he acquits himself extremely well in the role of paraplegic Vietnam vet Ron Kovak, although his efforts are undermined somewhat by director Oliver Stone’s overly-sentimental direction. Frustratingly, Cruise’s follow-up role to Magnolia in the 2000 summer blockbuster Mission Impossible II saw him revert back to his usual narcissistic self - all slow-mo, ‘look at amazing me’ gestures, much to the detriment of the film.

Now pushing fifty, he’s not quite in the same box office position he was a decade earlier, with contributing factors to this being his ill-advised Scientology comments and the tabloids whisperings which followed. He was fine as the villain in Collateral, but this character still hinged on the Hollywood archetype we’ve seen numerous times before. It would be far more interesting if Cruise ditched the more obvious leading man roles and concentrated on acting in edgier, independently-minded productions. Ironically, nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for Magnolia, Cruise lost out to Michael Caine – an actor who has embraced growing older and delivered some fine character performances in the later stages of his career.

Having just watched a trailer for this summer’s Day and Knight, an action-romance which reunites him with his Vanilla Sky co-star Cameron Diaz, it looks as if Cruise is repeating the same stuff reminiscent of his earlier films. I think it’s time for him once again to work with the right director and jettison his ego-centric choice of roles (think more ‘Tropic’ than ‘Days of’) and the constraints they bring to his performance.

Looking back at his career, I’m sure he would like the term maverick to be used in explaining his range and not just referring to a past character he played.