Monthly Archives: October 2012

Five Great Screen Face-Offs

There are some films out there that have fantastic interplay between two characters, and it’s in all kinds of different ones, from the romantic chemistry between Allen and Keaton in Annie Hall, to the fascinating, understated chess game between Norma and Joe in Sunset Boulevard. Sometimes this chemistry is easily the best thing in a movie (as in the rather underwhelming Blue Valentine from a couple of years ago), and other times it just elevates it.

These face-offs in general fascinate me, particularly the ones in more dramatic films, they bring out the best in actors and it’s always interesting to watch how they develop. Here are five of my favourites.

George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Here, we have one of the classics, George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, both on exceptional form), the bitter, aging couple constantly at war. Their dynamic is fascinating, there are so many elements to it, a love between them that is ignored and repressed, Martha’s utter fury when she reveals to George that “it’s snapped”, and her crushed desperation when the issue of their son comes up. George is just as interesting, he starts out as being rigid and something of a pushover, especially compared to his explosive wife, who of course, doesn’t bray. But George can get angry too, and when  he does, it’s shocking. Martha is shocked too, and who can blame her?

With such good actors both at the top of their game, directed by the able hand of the multiple award winning master Mike Nichols (making his directorial debut with this powerhouse), we have a face-off for the ages, and one that I’ll never tire of watching.

Michael and Fredo in The Godfather: Part II

If I wanted, I could sum this face-off up with two iconic quotes:
“I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart”
“I’m your older brother Mike, and I was stepped over”

They come from two different parts of the film, and are about two different things, but they’re the main showcases of this dynamic, the scenes that contain them highlight the brilliance of both performers and their characters.

Fredo is dumb. Period. But he doesn’t think that, he even says, “I’m smart, not like people think”, and his desperation, his repressed anger at his brother, all of it is on display here. It’s difficult not to pity him, a credit to Cazale’s performance.

Clarice and Dr. Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

An interesting one here, especially when you consider how little one of them appears in the movie (Lecter has around fifteen minutes of screen time), but I’ll be damned if the quiet, intricate mind games between FBI agent Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, both rightfully gaining Oscar gold for their performances) aren’t the highlight of a classic suspense movie.

“Quid pro quo Clarice,” Lecter says to her early in their time together, and that explains their dynamic in the simplest way possible, for everything he gives her, she returns a favour for him. And through him, we discover so much more about Clarice, from the fact that Lecter thinks that she’s “a rube” to her lamb.

In the hands of a lesser performer (and if it were adapted from lesser source material), Lecter could perhaps just be a tool of exposition, allowing us to further delve into the mind of the protagonist. And while Lecter does provide this element to the film, he is so much more. His fury is so deliberate, it is impossible to take your eyes off of him while he’s on screen.

Hayley and Jeff in Hard Candy

In the case of Hard Candy, the face-off is the movie. Ellen Page plays Hayley, who may or may not be a serial killer in the making (oh, and in this, she’s infinitely better than she is in Juno) and Patrick Wilson (snubbed of an Oscar nomination here) may or may not be a sex offender.

Hayley and Jeff meet online first and really hit it off. Then they meet up for real for coffee. Then they go back to Jeff’s. Then the games begin.

Games may be an understatement, it’s a visceral exchange of verbal and physical torment on both parties, but it’s just so engrossing and intriguing, it’s impossible to avert your gaze from it all. A tight script really helps these two performers create a fascinating, disturbing clash of amoral, very sickening characters.

Batman and The Joker in The Dark Knight

And speaking of a clash of the titans, it’s difficult not to include this one, two classic characters embodied so well in Christopher Nolan’s gritty take on the character of Batman.

“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” Or so says The Joker (played by Heath Ledger to an Oscar he deserved every damn inch of). The Joker wants to corrupt Batman, that is his goal.

Their characters are so at odds, Batman being oh so stoic, and even called “incorruptible” by the Joker, who is anarchy and chaos embodied. Perhaps its the difference between the characters themselves that makes this face-off so rewarding to watch. A true collision of worlds if ever there was one.

Of course, these aren’t the only face-offs out there, cinema is littered with them. Some good and some not so good, but there many others that I could have written about, from Heat to Revolutionary Road. So tell me, where did I go wrong and where did I go right? What would you have on a list like this?

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Five movies that inspired me to create

As an aspiring filmmaker who happens to talk to other people who also want to make films, I ask, and have been asked, several times, exactly what movies made me want to make movies. A lot of people go for classics, their favourite movie (incidentally, as populist a choice as it may seem, mine is The Shawshank Redemption) and such. But I guess my list is a little different to that, while it does of course contain films I rave about and adore, they may not be overly predictable, or at least, I hope there are a few surprises in there.

In the order in which I remember seeing them, here they are, the big five of inspirational movies for me.

Night of the Living Dead (1968, Dir. George Romero)

Ah, I do love a good horror movie. I always have really, it was my earliest cinematic obsession, and one of the first directors who’s work I became infatuated with was John Carpenter.

But obviously, this isn’t a Carpenter movie (although, don’t get me wrong, I’d gladly go on about Halloween or The Thing any day), it’s Romero’s zombie classic. I watched it on my laptop (I’d gotten my dad to buy me the DVD earlier that day, I guess I was around… 14 or 15) and I was blown away by it. Yeah, it’s got basically no budget and some of the performances are uneven, but I’ll be damned if it’s not brilliantly atmospheric, with a gut punch of an ending.

The inspiration of this movie though, goes beyond just how good it was (which is to say, very). Because I was trying to think of what to do after watching, I decided, because I basically never do these things, to thrown on the bonus features DVD. On that disc there was an interview, or a round-table discussion of some kind that included Romero, and I remember him saying something like “we did it because we wanted to make a movie”. That’s probably not the exact quote, but then, I haven’t seen that interview for a few years. But the point is, that quote from Romero is what made it ‘click’ for me, that, if I wanted, why didn’t I just write something and, somewhere down the line, try and get it made.

And from here, we go to…

Eraserhead (1977, Dir. David Lynch)

As some of you may know, I’m a little bit in love with Eraserhead and it’s director, David Lynch, so it’s only obvious that he’d have a big impact on me artistically.

I’m going to be rehashing some of what I said in my earlier piece here to give some context to it. I was talking to a friend online (who I don’t really talk to anymore, which is a shame), and I remember asking him for feedback on potential ideas I was having to write. I can even remember what the ideas were, there was a serial killer biopic (although I never decided on the person it’d be based on) wherein I’d also use interview footage and that kind of thing to create a sense of realism. I had a similar kind of idea for a war film, but it doesn’t focus on the war, it focuses on the impact of the war instead, as it happens, using news clips, political speeches, the whole thing would have centered around the ‘home front’. The thing these ideas both had in common was a sense of vérité about them (something that I loved about Night of the Living Dead). And while talking about these ideas, I remember asking this friend for some suggestions that were a little… ‘different’.

Among the films he recommended to me were Begotten, as well as a few films I still haven’t seen (PossessionThe Reflecting Skin and a few others) as well of, of course, Eraserhead). He shot me a link to the first part of it on YouTube, and away I went.

I was floored by it, it’s dream logic, visuals, nightmarish atmosphere… Everything. As much as I liked the idea of using vérité in movies, Eraserhead made me think about absolutely leaping out of the box and giving the finger to convention. It essentially, lit a creative fire in me that was put there from Night of the Living Dead, the one that made think, I could do this, and replaced it with one that screamed, I must do this.

The Shining (1980, Dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Who doesn’t love a good Kubrick film? No one, that’s who. And in my humble opinion, his lose adaptation of one of the best Stephen King novels ever, is his own masterpiece, visually wonderful, anchored by a top form and utterly unhinged Jack Nicholson.

The Shining, to put it simply, is the first film that I ever considered to be a masterpiece, it grabbed me by the throat for the entirety of it’s running time, from it’s iconic scenes to it’s masterful tracking shots, and the atmosphere of that damn hotel, the entire thing is excellent, and actually provided a major influence (the deserted hotel, descents into madness and whatnot) on an idea I’ve been floating around in my head for ages, which is some kinda Shining, Lynch-esque noir thing.

I’ll end this entry with another question – how can you not be influenced by the first masterpiece that you ever saw? You can’t.

The Seventh Seal (1957, Dir. Ingmar Bergman)

My introduction to foreign cinema, and the genius that is Bergman (which is to say it’s the first time I saw a Bergman film, the first time his name was on my radar, I was reading an interview with a black metal band who compared one of their albums to a Bergman movie, citing the chess with death scene that appears in this very work of genius), The Seventh Seal shaped some of my, for want of a better term, ‘intellect’ as an artist. It made me consider, in a way that Eraserhead did, what you can do with film as a medium, and the kind of the stories that it can tell.

First of all, it has a personification of Death in it. Yes, it’s simple, but it’s the first thing I saw with something like that, and it made me think about what to do with concepts like that.

Essentially, what The Seventh Seal did for me, was open my eyes, my mind, my heart, however you wanna put it, to using cinema to ‘say something’, to talk about faith, and death. It showed me that, by writing, I can genuinely have a ‘voice’.

Black Swan (2010, Dir. Darren Aronofsky)

The only modern film to grace this list is Darren Aronofsky’s ballet based stroke of cinematic wonder, Black Swan. I’ve seen this film a fair few times, once on a laptop, once in the cinema, and a few times on DVD. It should be noted, that of all the films on the list, this is the only one I’ve ever seen in a cinema.

It showed me how the atmosphere of where you see it is almost as important as the atmosphere of the film itself, on a cinema screen, Nina’s mental collapse is so powerful and gripping. It sometimes feels almost metafictional, the way it uses Swan Lake to bolster it’s story, including the perhaps infamous transformation sequence near the end of the film.

It’s also one of the first films I remember being so encapsulated by a motif in a movie – in this case, mirrors. I was fascinated by it, there were so many reflections everywhere, and it was wonderfully ambiguous as to what, if anything, they meant – is it about Nina’s mental state, a reflection of herself compared to herself when she performs? Who knows?

Ambiguous and gripping with a wonderfully realized score and choreography, this piece of modern genius is, for me, what modern cinema should be – unique and interesting, a story that is well told and technically interesting. Since I’m going to one day be one of those ‘modern’ filmmakers, something like this, that shows what a great mind and modern filmmaking is capable of, is just what I needed to see.

 

I’d also like to add a couple of honorable mentions to the end of this list, starting with a film that is awful, and then following it up with one that’s better, and, in a way, perhaps a little more personal.

Kidulthood (2006, Dir. Menhaj Huda)

I fucking loathe this movie. It’s utterly dreadful. Everything about it, from the acting and writing to the woeful characters.

But of course, bad films can say a lot to an aspiring artist. There are, for me, two ways I can react to something bad. Number one – “if something that bad is getting made, surely I can make something.” Number two – “I will never make something that bad, if I do, I’ll hate myself creatively.”

Yes, the second one is perhaps a little angsty, but hey, it’s true. And by watching a film that bad, it made me realize I want everything I write to be good, to have something to say, to be unique. Where Black Swan is everything I want as a modern filmmaker, Kidulthood encapsulates so much that I hate.

 

And now for one last film (I know I said that I’d be writing about five, but I just feel like this one, and the above catastrophe, need to be mentioned)

Earrings (2012, Dir. Alex Withrow)

Yeah, I went there, a short film that I fear none of you have heard of, but all of you should watch. It was directed by a friend of mine, Alex, from And So It Begins…. While Alex and I haven’t met, I like to think we’re friends (I hope he does too, of course), I hold his cinematic opinion in high regard, and he’s a great guy.

But the point of this being here is, when a friend succeeds, you’re very happy for them. And, maybe a tiny bit jealous. He’d done it, he’d made a film that was unique, that showed his vision. Oh, and it was good. So, to see a friend succeed so well gave me the kick I needed to really focus on my writing whenever I had spare time to do so. And for that, I’d like to thank Alex.

 

 

So, who else out there wants to make movies? I’d love to hear what it was that lit the fire in all of you.

 

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For Your Consideration – Denis Lavant

Recently, I wrote a short, but glowing review of the Leos Carax film, Holy Motors, the highlight of which is the staggeringly good performance from Denis Lavant.

I know it isn’t common for film blogs, especially ones as small and under-read as mine, to write For Your Consideration pieces, and it’s also quite early in the season, but this performance was just so good, so unique and masterfully done, that I simply have to write about it. Of course, the award he should be considered for is Best Leading Actor.

Lavant plays just under a dozen roles in the film, at the core of which is the enigmatic Monsieur Oscar, who is driven around and assumes different identities for various bizarre purposes. Other roles include a bizarre, leprechaun like monster, a man in a motion capture suit, and an assassin, among others.

The first thing one notices about the performance is the way he so easily changes his physicality to fit each of the roles, from his leprechaun monster, that brings to mind Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to his motion capture suit, a performance centered around so many slow, meticulous movements, all of them executed exceptionally. Lavant could have no lines in the film and his performance would still be phenomenal in it, he is a chameleon, and adopts each of these roles without any difficulty. 

Perhaps the best thing about this brilliant performance, even better than his myriad physical styles and the way he uses his voice in so many different ways for all of these people, is the way that all of the different roles each come back to the core of his character – Monseuir Oscar. Each time he resumes his life Oscar, he becomes more strained and on edge, as the line between the roles he takes on, and Oscar himself begin to blur. It is handled wonderfully by Lavant who changes Monsieur Oscar in nuanced and minor ways as the film goes on.

Yes, the film in itself is far outside of the Academy wheelhouse, it’s easily the strangest film of the last few years, probably the strangest since David Lynch’s  Inland Empire in 2006. It would, however, be a crime for Lavant’s performance to go unrecognized, and while it may seem like shameless self promotion of myself, I implore everyone to try and share this piece, do one of your own if you’ve seen the film and agree with the calibre of his performance. It may not make much of an impact, but it’s a fantastic performance, easily the best I’ve seen so far this year, and word of it simply needs to get out there.

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Review – Holy Motors

Ah, where do I begin when describing Holy Motors? I genuinely don’t know; the first thing I said when walking out of the cinema was “words fail me”, and they really do. It’s a bizarre, surreal, almost Lynchian film, an exploration of performance and identity.

At the heart of the film is Denis Lavant, playing almost a dozen different roles, and it is only as the puzzle box structure of the narrative unfolds that we see what is that’s going on. The core of all of his roles is Monsieur Oscar, and what is truly fascinating is, after each of his other roles are disposed of, to see where these roles end and the man behind them all begins. The performance is nothing short of masterful, easily the best performance I’ve seen all year, from the way he changes his voice and delivery for all of these roles, to his perfect changes in physicality for all of them, it’s an utter joy to watch him play each of these roles as brilliantly as he does.

The rest of the ensemble are all great in small roles, each of them helping to give each of the major sections in the film, and of course the characters Lavant  plays such interesting and distinct tones, from Eva Mendes, who plays Kay M across from Lavant in a scene that goes from physical comedy to a haunting, minimalist lullaby at the drop of a hat, to, and I never thought I’d say this, Kylie Minouge, who plays Jean across from him, and allows us to see a more tender and human side to Monsieur Oscar, as well as providing one of the two bizarre, but nonetheless interesting, musical interludes in the film.

Carax is clearly an able filmmaker, and the way he changes scenes and tones with such ease is fascinating, it helps to keep the audience on their toes; you literally have no idea what will happen next.

I don’t really know what else to say about Holy Motors, its an exceptionally well directed film with a virtuoso performance at its heart. It’s also very weird. Words don’t do it justice at all, you simply have to go and see it, it’s easily one of the best films of the year.

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Review – Looper

Joseph Gordon-Levitt once again teams up with Rian Johnson for the time travel based, high-concept science fiction of Looper. It’s about a ‘Looper’ called Joe, played by Levitt, a mob hitman who kills targets sent back to the past. He discovers that the mob wants him to ‘close the loop’ and kill his future self.

It’s a fascinating premise, and it succeeds admirably by not focusing on time travel and the endless paradoxes that come with it, even finding time to put in a joke about it. Also, it distances itself from other science fiction films, it remains gritty, with more realistic violence than you’d expect from a film like this, which lets it stand out in the crowd. Straight from the word go, it’s clear that, as a writer, Johnson has developed a lot; the plot feels much fresher than Brick, which felt too derivative, whereas Looper can stand on its own two feet as an original and interesting idea. However, while the idea is excellent and the execution very good, the dialogue feels poor; cumbersome and cliche, it drags down the film a little.

That’s an issue with all of Looper really; everything seems inconsistent. From the good idea but lackluster writing, to the great visual effects, but some awful hair and makeup when we see Joe somewhere between his being Levitt and being Willis.

The cast isn’t quite as inconsistent, but it does have some issues. Levitt and Willis have excellent chemistry together, and manage to convincingly come across as different versions of the same person, and their scene’s, which are dynamic and most well-written in the film, are easily the highlights.

Jeff Daniels is also a joy with his limited screen time, bringing a strong presence and an excellent dry wit to Abe, who essentially ‘runs’ the Loopers, for want of better phrasing. The same however, cannot be said for Emily Blunt, who has very little chemistry with Levitt, and is painfully underwritten, so none of her scenes work particularly well.

The highlight of the cast is a child actor, Pierce Gangon, who plays Cid. His performance is powerful, layered and excellent, although, based on the character he played and how the character was written, I struggled to take him seriously, which is a shame, because he really runs away with the movie.

One thing Johnson does very well, as with Brick, is write final acts. They’re always effective and gripping, and this one easily makes up for issues with the film’s middle section and lackluster writing. This isn’t to say that the ending is unpredictable, but it’s executed so well, and is clear proof that he’s slowly but surely growing as a writer.

While it has some excellent moments, Looper just feels too inconsistent in so many departments, from its writing to its acting. The premise is excellent and execution is good enough, the film engages throughout and is sometimes incredibly gripping, but it seems so rough around the edges that a lot of it doesn’t work or some together the way it should. A shame, as there are some great ideas at work here.

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Review – Killing Them Softly

The last time Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik worked together, the result was the fantastic, neo-western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, so with them reuniting for Killing Them Softly, expectations were, to understate it, quite high.

The film is about a mob enforcer, who hunts down small time crooks after they heist a mob-protected poker game. The enforcer is Jackie, played by Pitt. Much like with their previous collaboration, Dominik gets an excellent understated performance from Pitt, which works fantastically well in counterpoint to some of the more frantic characters across from him like James Gandolfini’s Mickey.

Gandolfini steals the film, bringing explosive energy and power that utterly consumes the screen whenever he’s on it, it’s impossible to not be focused on him. The rest of the ensemble are all on top form, from Ray Liotta’s Markie, who has to put it mildly, a bad run in with the mob, that results in explosive, visceral violence. Richard Jenkins plays Jackie’s driver, and his character’s name is that simple – Driver. While it may seem like a minor, uninteresting role, Jenkins’ gravitas and excellent chemistry with Pitt make his scenes some of the most enjoyable in the film.

The films most gaping flaw is its utter lack of subtlety or restraint. Not in terms of its violence, which is surprisingly rare, and very brutal, including an exceptionally well made death scene that shows that Dominik is truly developing his technical eye as a filmmaker. The lack of restraint comes in the political message of the film. It opens with presidential speeches and campaign posters. And then, during the mob poker games, there are always clips of politicians talking about the economy. It’s painfully clear that Dominik is comparing mobsters to politicians, and while it’s certainly an interesting message, he uses so much that it feels as if he;s flogging a dead horse. I can’t help but wish that after the fourth or fifth time he draws the comparison that someone would just tell him that we get it.

The pacing is by no means perfect, and although it establishes the story and some of the characters well, particularly in giving Liotta some excellent scenes, it feels as if the film is just meandering through typical narrative motions before Jackie arrives on the scene to shake things up. Perhaps that’s an issue with a slightly predictable story, it has to go through typical motions to begin with. But once it breaks free of them, it’s an excellent piece of filmmaking, and it has a fantastic, understated ending that’s etched into my mind, and was so much more effective than the political hammering that plagued the film.

By no means perfect, Killing Them Softly is hampered by a predictable first act, and an overwrought political message. However, it’s fascinating to see how Dominik has developed as a filmmaker, and his exceptionally talented cast form one of the best ensembles of the year. It’s slick filmmaking with a savage end result, and well worth seeking out.

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