Wednesday, December 24, 2008


I haven't seen as much this year as in the last few. But I've seen enough. Its not been the best year, and as usual, much of the most promising stuff is out in the next quarter. But there were some great films released in the UK in 2008, and here are a few of them. 10 to be precise. A top 10? Oh, alright then:

1. There Will Be Blood (P.T. Anderson)

- I feel like I can't really convey the majesty and complexity of this incredible film in one of these relatively short pieces. It deserves its own long post. Suffice to say, its perhaps the greatest American film of the last decade, a beautiful, nuanced, ambiguous and awesomely made piece of story-telling that succeeds on just about every single level. Watching it the first time was one of those near-religious experiences only cinema amongst artforms can really provide. I felt exhilarated, gripped and utterly rapt. It seemed hypnotic. I couldn't get it out of my head for days afterward, its details and finer points circling in my thoughts, its possible meanings elusive. It tackles big subjects - business, faith, oil, religion, society, violence, America. Its a foundation myth and a character study. Its influenced by and full of allusions to other films - several Kubricks (2001, Barry Lyndon, The Shining), Days of Heaven, Giant, Citizen Kane - and yet its always its own unique beast, sprawling and yet intimate. Its many components are all near-perfect: Day Lewis astonishing, Jonny Greenwood's soundtrack brutally visceral, Elswit's photography illuminating the black mirror of the oil and the vast emptiness of the Western sky with equal attention to tone and mood. It is sensual and textured in a way most period drama never approaches, you feel you can smell the timber of that little church, the heaviness of the oil in the air. For his part, Anderson finally makes good on his potential. None of the showboating of his earlier films, none of the giddy excess. Only a mature storyteller utilising the medium at its best, his technique flawless, his control seamless. His screenplay, shorn of his earlier Mamet influence, is funny, powerful and oddly moving in places. But perhaps most impressive are the long scenes - notably the first 15 minutes or so - which play out as pure cinema, completely devoid of any dialogue, but absolutely thrilling nonetheless.

2. Hunger (Steve McQueen)

- McQueen, in his stunningly accomplished debut, displays an acute understanding of the power of the medium. Its there in the first scene. We follow a Prison Guard - employed in the Maze in 1970s Northern Ireland - through some of the moments of his routine. He bathes his bloodied knuckles in cold water. He smokes a cigarette. His wife makes him a fry-up. He checks his street for potential assassins and the underside of his car for bombs before leaving for work. All of it beautifully composed - the framing and lighting distinctively stylish. That and the sound gives it all texture and a truly sensual reality - the crunch of the Guard's toast is shockingly intimate, the rustle the fabric of a shirt makes as he dresses, the gush of tapwater into a wash basin. All of this means that when the focus shifts to the Republican Prisoners engaged in a dirty protest - not washing, smearing their excrement on their cell-walls, clad only in blankets - we can smell the filth, feel the maggots writhing on the floor. The violence of their beatings is given horrific weight in this film. The focus shifts again, to Bobby Sands, who would lead the hunger strike which would kill him after 66 days. Michael Fassbender is incredible in the role, and the later scenes, where his emaciated body seems to fade away before us, are almost unwatchable in their power and visceral quality. Its a formally brave film - McQueen uses long static shots brilliantly, but mixes them with tight close ups and moments of pure visual poetry. Perhaps the film's bravest gamble is the long central scene of Sands debating his intentions with a Priest (Liam Cunningham), which McQueen films in one ten minute long set-up. This puts the burden on Enda Walsh's dialogue and the two actors, and they are all up to it. It works, giving some context to the otherwise intensely focused story we are shown. It is even-handed, too: the murder of the prison guard while visiting his senile mother in a nursing home is perhaps the most brutal moment in the film. The final moments escape briefly into visual beauty before returning us to the cold, terrible reality of Sands physical collapse and death. Somehow it is too beautiful and exact to be depressing. The control and focus and austerity is reminiscent of Bresson, but the emotion evoked is much rawer than anything in his work. Its severity and formal precision makes most films about the Troubles (including Terry George's solid "Some Mother's Son", also concerned with the Hunger strikers) look like contrived Hollywood piffle. McQueen looks a massive talent.

3. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)

- I don't quite know how Pixar does it. Make films so consistently, unfailingly brilliant, I mean. When a film as good as "Cars" (2006) is regarded as a disappointment, it shows just how high the expectations are. Dreamworks Animation Department would kill to make anything as good as "Cars". They can only dream about ever making anything on the level of "Wall-E". For this is a miraculous, beautiful, near perfect masterpiece - a moving love story, a hilarious comedy, a serious satire, and a thrilling action spectacle all in one. Not to mention a dystopian sci-fi film. And the film handles each of these elements expertly, seamlessly blending them into a classical three-act narrative that works just as well for kids as for adults (which was the main deficiency of Pixar's last, the slightly too-adult "Ratatouille" (2007)). The animation is spellbinding, of course, visually beautiful and epic. Epic, yes, and almost casually so. Its the combination of this sense of scale with an attention to detail which helps the filmakers to just get down to telling their beautifully simple story. Wall-E and the other characters exist in a richly imagined world, presented to the audience with an incredible texture and depth of feeling. The opening half hour or so, almost entirely wordless as it is in its depiction of Wall-E alone and working on a deserted future Earth, is perhaps the greatest work in any Pixar film, and I don't say that lightly. It is pure cinema, patient and haunting and fascinating, and only matched in the film by the later "dance" sequence through space he shares with EVE. The satire of the film's second half somehow manages to be both brutal and yet gentle at the same time, a trick you cannot imagine many of today's filmakers pulling off. But Stanton and Pixar do. His last film as director was "Finding Nemo" (2003), one of the more Dreamworks-esque products of the Pixar stable. But "Wall-E" is closer in quality to the "Toy Story" films, which he co-wrote, and it may even surpass them.

4. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)

- The Coen Brothers best film, without any of the smugness or condescension that mars much of their other work, this takes what is probably Cormac McCarthy's weakest - though still extraordinary - novel and turns it into an acute, finely calibrated genre piece. That McCarthy's sensibility blends so well with theirs is the film's great surprise - the majority of the dialogue, so Coen-like in its deadpan wit and wisdom, comes directly from the novel. They give the action scenes more oomph than McCarthy did, and the film is incredibly tense and gripping throughout, with great performances from the brilliantly cast leading men. They play tricks with perspective and mirroring continuously through the film, too. Many of the details - the small moments - in scenes are perfectly weighted and observed. Chigurgh's (Javier Bardem) encounter with two young boys immediately after his car crash is one such moment. He seems refreshed by them, their innocence, and ruins the moment by giving them too much money for a shirt with which to construct a sling for his arm. As he leaves, they argue, corrupted by the money, by their encounter with him. Most impressive is the Coens' bravery in ending the film just as McCarthy ends the book - he allows the narrative to slide away from centre stage and puts the spotlight on the themes he has been working at throughout. Thus the Coens end with two scenes focused on Tommy Lee Jones' Sherriff Bell. In the first he visits his old uncle and they have a rambling talk mainly about good and evil and the nature of violence in America. Then we see him, having retired in the interim, recounting a dream to his wife, a speech which leave the films meaning open to several interpretations. Just as in the novel, the last line of dialogue seems crucial : "And then I woke up." What McCarthy really brings to the film is a seriousness never seen in anything by the Coens up to this point. His elegy for a vanishing America is in deadly earnest, in a way the Coens would never be if they had originated this story themselves. Indeed, much of their work seems to mock such seriousness. But here it only seems entirely apt, earned by the film, by the characters, by the filmakers.

5. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach)

- Before I saw this film I was well familiar with the criticisms levelled at it by (seemingly) the majority of reviewers. It had no sympathetic characters, it wasn't funny, it was just people being nasty to each other. Well: no, no, and no. Baumbach is marking out his territory in American cinema more clearly with every film, and he seems a singular talent. Obviously influenced more by European filmakers than his compatriots, "Margot at the Wedding" feels like a Rohmer or Rivette character drama, and it is good enough to stand comparison with the work of those greats. Are its characters sympathetic? Well, they are beautifully observed, realistic people, and as such, of course they are. The fact that they're so neurotic and messed up only makes them more interesting, even if none of them are ever really likeable. But sympathetic does not necessarily equal likeable. Baumbach's approach to characterisation is more literary than cinematic, and it is fitting that the character of Margot is a celebrated short story writer, because this film has the feel of a short story by the likes of Alice Munro, perhaps, in its impeccable observation and abrupt, but somehow fitting ending. It is quite funny, too, particularly Jack Black in a role far from his usual mugging.
Baumbach captures perfectly the casual cruelty family relationships can often feature and the strange chemistry between children and their parents, and all of the performances are finely modulated and judged. Shot by Harris Savides in wintry, sharp, 70s-evoking colours, its another perfect little cameo from a writer-director, who may be the closest thing his generation has to a Woody Allen. That is to say: a witty, pitiless chronicler of middle class mores and foibles. Baumbach fills his movies with pop music, though, something Woody would never dream of, and here the likes of Blondie, the dBs, Steve Forbert, Donovan and tusk-era Fleetwood Mac just made me love it all even more...

6. 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Christian Mungiu)

- The best Romanian abortion drama ever made? Mungiu's film is almost certainly that, among many other things. Such as: a portrayal of life at ground level in Ceucescu's Romania in 1984 (a year chosen not quite at random, I suspect), a world of corruption, incessant bribery and beauracracy, queues for food, crumbling, dank apartment blocks and ID cards, of black market traders selling American cigarettes and chocolate, a world recalling the rest of Europe in the years immediately after the Second World War. Such as: a taut and incredibly gripping thriller that never bows to generic conventions for its thrills, that instead wrings suspense from its narrative and its style until some of its scenes are almost unbearably tense. Such as: a great exercise in a sort of spartan visual realism, with Mungiu shooting the majority of the film in perfectly, elegantly composed static set-ups, with perhaps a slow zoom in or out, the lighting always naturalistic and true to the period, the rare scenes when the action moves into the outside world almost the only time the camera pans, and then never ostentatiously, always to follow Otilia, our heroine, as she moves through the wintery cityscape. Such as: a meditation on life in a State controlled-country and what that means for personal freedoms, where abortion becomes the only option for a girl at the wrong time in her life. Its not quite so simple, of course, and Mungiu gives the moral equation of the film a balance (if any film with such a brutal shot of an aborted fetus can be called balanced). The acting is uniformly fine, and the interplay of the characters perhaps the films greatest strength - the relationship of the two girls, and the long scene where they deal with the ironically monikered Bebe, the abortionist; is particularly marvellously written and played. Best of all, this film is the first in a planned trilogy of films from Mungiu, entitled "Tales of the Golden Age". Roll on the second installment...

7. Summer Palace (Lou Ye)

- A messy, adult, sexy, and moving love story set against a backdrop of the Tianamen Square protests in China. It parallels human intimacy and relationship dramas with political strife in a way that is never clumsy or trite, in a way that even feels natural. Huge events loom in the background and the protagonists are lost against them, tiny figures whose own concerns are nevertheless colossal to them. An awkward trio - an eternal triangle in the making - walk darkened, deserted streets after the famous events in the square, lost in themselves, as if they are returning from a party, just another student night. The last act stretches across the decades since as lives disappear in new and unknown cities, surrounded by strangers, relationships fail, the past gains a glow in memory. Also a film about the world today - in the deft portrayal of Chinese in Europe, clinging together, returning home to a newly prosperous China, the old world gone. The characters are recognisable in their youthful passion and then their later cynicism and remove, and the subtlety of the differences is observed with a clinical sort of poetry. The sex scenes are explicit, and feel real and true but never exploitative. The ending is quietly devastating. Lou Ye's ambition is enviable, his control and reach extraordinary and the cast , Hao Lei especially, are fantastic.

8. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)

- Martin McDonagh's sensibility can feel odd when encountered in a theatre. That unique mix of black comedy, ultra-violence and extremely witty dialogue always drew comparisons to Tarantino, and always seemed eminently cinematic. "In Bruges" demonstrates that McDonagh is perhaps more comfortable in the context of a film, where genre cross-pollination is less unexpected, and where tonal shifts can be softened or signalled through editing and music. It also demonstrates that McDonagh has the potential to be a major talent. His film is a black comedy about hitmen which also works as a thriller and manages to delve into darker, more moving territory in its latter stages. Its sense of place and atmosphere is near-flawless, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are both perfect, and it probably made me laugh as much as any film this year. McDonagh's dialogue remains his greatest gift, Mamet with a more comedic bent and a great nose for the most humorous pop-cultural references available to an Anglo-Irish writer. Its also refreshingly un-PC and foul-mouthed. But its that final subtle shift to a moving sense of grace - after some belly laughs and horrible violence - which is most impressive.

9. Speed Racer (Andy & Larry Wachowski)

- This delirious piece of pop art may just be the boldest, bravest mainstream film of the year. A construct of pure beauty, it was incredible to behold, a kaleidoscopic whirl through a fully imagined and created day-glo world, its action scenes ridiculous, kinetic explosions of joyous technique. Last year I talked about "300" as a new kind of cinema, and Speed Racer is from the same place. Only the Wachowskis have a wildly different approach to Snyder. They understand genre in a particularly modern way, in a way thats suffused with games and comic books and growing up with a vhs and access to manga and martial arts movies, 80s sci-fi and old westerns. That means that narratively, "Speed Racer" works. Like any sports movie - with ninjas - should. But crucially its just filled with joy. The Wachowski's joy in what they were creating, in its beauty, in it childish exhilaration. If I had seen it at 10, I would have thought it was the greatest film ever made. And it still appealed to that part of me, which lots of films attempt to do. Only the best succeed.

10. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)

- Two Assayas films premiered in the UK this year. The first was "Boarding Gate", the final part of his "International trilogy" (the first two parts being "Demonlover and "Clean") which went straight to DVD here. Its a bizarre hybrid - the first half a virtual two hander full of sexual tension as Michael Madsen and Asia Argento discuss their former relationship, the second half a b-movie thriller set in Hong Kong. Argento is spectacularly good, but the film doesn't really work despite some great moments and ideas. In his second release of the year, "Summer Hours", Assayas goes home, and makes his most HHH-esque film, about family, history, responsibility, inter-generational relations and the power and meaning of art itself. While the "international trilogy" has been widely misunderstood and reviled, this return to an almost caricatured sense of Frenchness has been his greatest critical and commercial success since "Irma Vep". But his interest in the modern world as global village makes itself known - characters live in China and the US and neither seems eager to return to Old Europe - as his gentle tale unwinds with an invisible directorial hand. The observation is perfect, the acting beautifully modulated. Its the kind of film that never seems to be going anywhere, and the type that makes you question why you even expect a film to "go" anywhere. For a film like this engages with life and the world we live in and makes clear the importance of the decisions we make and the issues we face daily, without ever really thinking about it. Then you find yourself returning to it for days afterward, possible meanings presenting themselves upon consideration. Like the meaning of the central bureau, first seen but barely noticed in a cluttered room, a room full of life and business, then later seen as literally a museum piece, bare and in a sort of captivity; and what this says about our relationship with history and family and legacy. Lovely, quietly moving and effortless.

A few films that almost made the cut:

Cloverfield (Matt Reeves)
- How strange that a device designed to make the viewer feel closer to the events onscreen can instead prove so alienating. The 1st person POV maintained throuhout works wonderfully well for those first 15 minutes, when Cloverfield is a mumblecore relationship comedy-drama. Then the monster chucks the statues of liberty's head across Manhattan, and it all becomes a lot more complex. The characterisation - previously light and careful, even if all the people look like they've stepped out of an American Apparel advert - completely breaks down. The spectacle ramps up, and some of it is absolutely awesome, impressively mounted, frightening and weirdly believable. But then there is that camera. Showing us flashes, glimpses, impressions. A classically shot film would have been ho-hum, obviously. We've seen all that before, and nobody cares. But this technique paradoxically drew attention to itself as the camera ignored the money shot and instead we saw the shaking edge of the money shot, and it felt strangely distancing. You cease caring early on, and though it remains entertaining and fascinating, its something of a cold exercise, an experiment with aesthetics. How far can we push this, the film seems to be saying. And it answers its own question.
Oddly enough, the greatest and most frightening moment for me is the scene in the Electronic store when the monster is glimpsed on tv reports, a massive form obscured by buildings shot from helicopter. There is verisimilitude, I thought, that feels authentic.

You, the Living (Roy Andersson)
- Nobody else makes films like Andersson's, perfect little tragicomedies, immaculately mounted and shot but with a mordant little sting in the tale. This series of beautiful deep focus tableau is mesmerising, hilarious, depressing and baffling by turns. The short scenes, each composed of a single long take (the camera only moves twice in the entire film), do not move the plot forward, for there is no plot. Just these vignettes. Every so often the camera returns to a dour little bar where various characters sit over beer. And yet Andersson addresses all that makes life so vital and terrible - love and death and fear and happiness. And he does it with such control and precision. This is a kind of genius, I think. This film was a squeak away from my top 10. Had I decided the final running order on another day, it would have been in. Call it Number 11, then.

The Mist (Frank Darabont)
- The greatest episode of the Twilight Zone ever made, basically. Darabont abandons the very careful, controlled style of his previous work for a handheld, tv-inspired aesthetic (he used the camera crew from the Shield), in order to better convey the sweaty intimacy of the mounting panic and dread inside his central location - a supermarket besieged by a mysterious mist. Despite this very modern style, its a fundamentally old-fashioned film, focused as it is upon a tight ensemble of characters and their reactions to the crisis they face. Its scares are primitive, its FX often akin to something from a 50s horror movie or 80s straight-to-video title (and I mean that in a good way). The brilliant premise allows Darabont to work up an allegory for modern America with its religious and class tensions, its fear of outsiders, its cowed populace frightened into agreement with violence. The allegory is there if you want it but, if you disregard it the film works just as well as a study of the human descent into savagery and barbarism. It takes the awesome ending to Stephen King's novella (probably his greatest work) and goes a step further, making for an absolutely shattering conclusion. But then its a dark, cynical, angry film, and the tone seems to suit Darabont - this may be his best ever work. The cast are all great.

Heartbeat Detector (Nikolas Klotz)
- A provocative, mesmeric, disturbing corporate thriller which dares to draw ideological parallels between Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust and modern corporate culture. That may sound silly or even offensive, but the film is uncompromising and earnest and even somewhat convincing. Much of that is down to the brilliance of Klotz' direction - a dour, steely colour palette, the flat strip lighting of a million offices and a brilliant sound-mix make the film's every scene gripping and unsettling. Klotz favours fixed compositions, his scenes often gaining narrative context only as they progress. Mathieu Amalric is even more brilliant than usual as the Corporate Psychologist slowly disintegrating as he learns more than he wanted about his superiors.

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
- This is our generation's Batman. The 60s got Adam West, camp, comedy, primary colours. In the 70s DC comics reclaimed him and he was darker, more violent, more Bob Kane. In the 80s Frank Miller redefined him and that version has stood, really, til now - fascistic iconography, brutal ultraviolence. The Burton/Schumacher versions never really had that grip on the cultural consciousness, with the films being more notable as exercises in style and mass-marketing opportunities than portrayals of one of the last centuries primary fictional icons. But Nolan has tapped into something with this Batman, and that, together with Heath Ledger's unfortunate fate, is what has made this film such a phenomenon. This is a Batman for the post-9/11 World, a Batman fighting a villain repeatedly labelled a terrorist, a Batman willing to break the law, to bend to the unethical, in order to do the right thing, to serve justice. This is a nihilist Batman in a savage world with little hope. It is also the Summer's best straight American blockbuster. Who would have thought that a Superhero film could possibly fill the space usually taken by a Bourne film as the late-season "adult" blockbuster? Nolan borrows his visual template from Michael Mann (particularly "Heat"), stumbles (again) slightly through his action scenes, yet manages to pull it off. Beautifully shot, well acted by everyone (especially Eckhardt and Oldman), and more-or-less gripping from start to finish, its only marred by a strange meandering structure and the fact that it grinds to a halt every 15 minutes while the characters discuss the themes, you know, in case the audience missed them, and the fact that the style (all those circling cameras!) is designed to keep an audience agitated and disturbed, which works for this story but is absolutely exhausting. But at least it has themes and wants to effect its audience, heavy handed as it may be. Most impressive - the brilliantly evoked vivid sense of this Gotham as a modern dystopia, a real, awful, scary, lived-in city whose politics and architecture and culture and fears were all evident and convincing. This is a great film of the City, a product of modern city life with all its paranoia and ceaseless vigilance, its frequent skirting of chaos, its pessimism crossed with a refusal to see the worst in any of it.

Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green)
- Not just a film wanting to pay homage to the action-comedys of the 1980s, but a film trying to be one, and coming wickedly close. The violence was savage and nasty enough, the humour dumb and coarse enough, the sentiment thick enough. It also meanders through character-driven stretches in a very contemporary and satisfying manner. James Franco is the best he's ever been, including his great work in "Freaks and Geeks". Where the hell does Gordon Green go next, though?

Appaloosa (Ed Harris)
- The oldest of old skool Westerns, made with an awareness of every variation in the genres long history. Then most of it was junked in favour of this pure, laconic, simple tale of lawmen and justice and gunplay. Viggo Mortensen and director Ed Harris are the closest thing I've ever seen to a pair of Elmore Leonard's Western heroes onscreen (though in fact its an adaptation of a Robert B Parker book), and Jeremy Irons a fitting, formidable villain. It takes the genre's basics and does them right, without bloat or pretension, and in a way its a sort of instant classic and absolute pure pleasure for a Western fan.

Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone)
- Coruscating and brilliantly crafted, its characters sketched in beautifully in short scenes, its tone and sense of place vivid and faultless, its plot sinuous and subtle, its conclusions devastating. The Wire did it all better, of course, but Cinema will always have a charge even the best tv can't touch, and this is a fitfully stunning film, even if its hard to escape the truth of its status as an Italian film telling its story in an American accent, in much the same way "City of God" did. Up to the viewer to decide if theres anything wrong with that, though...

Burn after Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen)
- And so the Coens return, and its as if No Country never happened. Brilliantly made, witty, cynical, its one long sneer. Second rate Coens, and after their last film, that just isn't good enough.

Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne & John Stevenson)
- Containing the year's best action scene by far: Tai-Lung's brilliantly choreographed, scary, exciting, bullet-time escape from prison.

Redbelt (David Mamet)
- Among the many things to love about David Mamet is his approach to genre. "Spartan" was a thriller, but it didn't really feel like any thriller I'd seen before. Whoever wrote a romantic comedy like "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" before Mamet? "Redbelt" is a fight movie. A martial arts movie, even. Only its Mamet so its really a movie about honour and compromise in the modern world. a samurai film, if you will. And a movie skewering the mores of the modern entertainment industry. And a con story. With fight scenes. Chiwetl Ejiofor is great - almost too great, in such a modest film - as the samurai, who finally takes up his sword. Tim Allen is pretty great too, as the fading action star. Mamet regulars - Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, Max Martini - fill out the classy cast. It ends with a long fight scene, then you feel good. Less quaotable than "Spartan", it resembles it in possessing major rewatch value.

Others worth a mention: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Lust; Caution, In the Valley of Elah, Garage, Flight of the Red Balloon, Quiet City, The Diving-Bell & the Butterfly, Savage Grace, Shotgun Stories, Tropic Thunder, Mongol, Stop-Loss, Gone Baby Gone, Man On Wire

Notable revivals: Il Conformista, Some Came Running, Overlord, Jules et Jim, Killer of Sheep, Ikiru, Alice in the Cities, Ashes of Time Redux

Stuff I missed and wanted to see: Changeling, Waltz With Bashir, Unrelated, Somers Town, Elite Squad, La Antena, The Orphanage, The Last Mistress, Memories of Matsuto, Far North, Mad Detective

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Vintage Trailer of the Week 18

Kihachi Okamoto makes great, beautiful use of a widescreen frame. Toshiro Mifune is the fiercest presence ever committed to celluloid. There is an amazing samurai sword battle in the snow at the end. The soundtrack is fantastic. With a name like "Samurai Assassin", it just had to be good though, didn't it?

(Okamoto would better it with a year or so later with "Sword of Doom")


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Theres always free cheese in a mousetrap"

When I was in College, a friend of a friend was involved with DramSoc, which was what the Drama Society was called. All the societies had similar names - FilmSoc, LitSoc etc. It always seemed a Burgessian conceit typical of a University which bloomed in the 1960s and which had just become generally accepted, unquestioned and unquestionable, the way things were. The Drama Society was pretty good, even heavyweight as such bodies go. It had decent resources and a reputation for producing actors, playwrights and directors of note (Conor McPherson is the most famous old boy I can think of, a few years before me). My friend's friend was a costume designer on a relatively acclaimed production of Christopher Hampton's "Dangerous Liaisons". Acclaim at that level means good reviews in all the College papers, and this got raves. I remember her telling us one day in a crowded canteen that the production was difficult because the leading man and one of the leading ladies were having a torrid affair.

Even then, I knew there was a precedent for this. Those two roles: Valmont and Lady de Tourvel; seem to do something to actors and actresses. Maybe its the story's insistence on seduction as its subject, the level and nature of the chemistry it demands. Consider that during the shooting of "Dangerous Liaisons" (Stephen Frears, 1989) John Malkovich began an affair with Michelle Pfieffer which led him to leave his wife, actress Glenne Headly, for her. Then, playing the same roles in Milos Forman's "Valmont" (1991), Colin Firth met Meg Tilly and they later married and had a son. And then there is the case of "Cruel Intentions" (Roger Kumble, 1999), on the set of which Ryan Phillippe met Reese Witherspoon. Marriage and two children soon followed. Nine years later, so did divorce. Of course Malkovich and Pfieffer didn't last long either, and Firth and Tilly split after six years or so.

When they met, Reese Witherspoon was in a much cooler career place than Ryan Phillippe. She chose her roles well, and she always seemed to be great in them. Since the instant acclaim of her debut in "The Man in the Moon" (Robert Mulligan, 1991) she had bounced between TV parts and good-girl roles in a mix of material, some good, some bad. But immediately before "Cruel Intentions" she had shone in "Pleasantville" (Gary Ross, 1998) and her next three films saw her move into edgier, more indie territory: "Election" (Alexander Payne, 1999), "Best Laid Plans" (Mike Barker, 1999) and "American Psycho" (Mary Harron, 2000). She was particularly brilliant in "Election", her wit and intelligence allowing her to make Tracy Flick a banal, realistic and yet truly monstrous creation. Witherspoon has some advantages - she is pretty but not beautiful in an alienating way, obviously intelligent and with fine comic timing. She is convincing as a normal person where the likes of Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman can struggle. And she has managed her career cannily - she appeared in a few episodes of "Friends" around the time of "American Psycho"s release, covering her bases admirably.

Phillippe has had a harder time of it. His looks - obviously what get him his parts - have been a curse as much as blessing. He is pretty, blonde, and seemingly, early on, destined for roles as generic soldiers in the background, the heroes friend. But he obviously has interesting tastes, and is willing to follow them. Many of his early roles suggest a young actor trying to stretch himself and unwilling to be typecast. And indeed, even as he has grown more successful, he has had to mix independent, passion projects with the paycheck gigs which any non-Superstar actor must fill out his c.v. The first evidence that he might be capable of escaping from the roles he was still getting pointed towards was in "The Way of the Gun" (Christopher McQuarrie, 2000). Here his looks aided him, for there is something faintly cruel about Phillippe's prettiness - a bored, sulky quality. He always seems about to break into a sneer. The violence and apparent amorality of Mcquarrie's brilliant opening scene saw Phillippe in an exciting new light, but one which made a strange sort of sense. He was cold, harsh, malevolent in intent, believably tough. Those pretty boy looks seemed curdled, truly nasty. And you could tell he just loved it.

Witherspoon, meanwhile, was heading closer to superstardom. She followed "American Psycho" with an appearance in "Little Nicky" (Steven Brill, 2000), which turned out to be the first outright flop of Adam Sandler's career. Yet it had still been seen by more people than all of her other work and demonstrated her willingness to follow the mainstream route to success. Her next film, "Legally Blonde" (Robert Luketic, 2001) gave her that success. She followed it with "The Importance of Being Ernest", outwardly a credibility-guaranteeing period film but in reality yet another romcom, albeit one written a hundred years earlier. Her next film was the more rote "Sweet Home Alabama", which was a big hit. The public trusted her in this genre now and she was the new Chickflick queen, picking up the baton dropped by Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, harmlessly appealing and ever more bland, her face on the covers of magazines across the world. This sort of success must impact upon a relationship between two people in the same profession. Phillippe's career was acquiring the pattern it would follow from that point on - he followed "Way of the Gun" with "Antitrust" (Peter Howitt, 2001), an awful corporate thriller in which he took the anonymous lead part and seemed bored and baffled by the whole thing. So he began to alternate - an interesting supporting role in an ensemble piece here, a generic lead in a "commercial" film there. So solid, intriguing work in "Gosford Park" (Robert Altman, 2001) and "Igby Goes Down" (Burr Steers, 2002) is followed by a DTV-esque thriller, "The I Inside" (Roland Suso Richter, 2003). More young actors should follow this plan, though it is extremely risky. There is always the possibility of ending up stuck in a DTV action movie purgatory and being forced to make a desperate dive for a TV show, ala Skeet Ulrich.

Witherspoon is stuck in another, more high profile purgatory. Her career since "Legally Blonde" has consisted of more romantic comedies ("Legally Blonde 2" "Just Like Heaven", "Four Christmases") together with high profile Oscar-bait dramas like "Vanity Fair" (Mira Nair, 2004), "Rendition" (Gavin Hood, 2007) and "Walk the Line" (James Mangold, 2005). The comedies give her the commercial clout to make the dramas, and yet they are all big films, made so by virtue of her very presence. Though she is now an Oscar-winning marquee name, she can only dream of Phillippe's ability to slip into low-profile but worthy projects like "Franklyn" (Gerard McMorrow, 2008), from which the picture at the top of this post is taken. Even if she could, her stardom would unbalance them precariously. Despite her undoubted ability as an actress, she now brings baggage, which in many of her roles is part of the appeal - she is the sunny Southern spitfire with a good heart and a take-no-shit attitude. Audiences know this and expect it of her. She will have problems shaking those expectations in the future. Her ex-husband, meanwhile, has made a series of interesting mid-budget films and taken good parts in big ensembles in successful work like "Flags of Our Fathers" (Clint Eastwood, 2006) and "Crash" (Paul Haggis, 2005).

Some actors make me interested in a project for no reason other than their presence - they instantly make everything they appear in more intriguing. This does not always have anything to do with the consistency or quality of their work, either - I mean the likes of Val Kilmer, who has made a dozen bad films, but is always worth watching even in those films, working at his own agenda, whether it be slyly mocking the film itself or stupidly intense in his portrayal of a character he believes in in the middle of a narrative undeserving of such focus and attention. Or Mark Ruffalo, possibly the finest actor of his generation but destined never to be a star. Or even Ethan Hawke, who switches between arty personal projects of great quality and b-movie actioners with a relish I can only applaud. Phillippe has suddenly joined this group due to his work over the last few years. It began with "Way of the Gun", I think, but he obviously learned from that experience. The two films he made after his sterling work in "Flags of Our Fathers" are both fine examples of how he has matured into an interesting, accomplished actor of the kind nobody who saw him in "I Know What You Did Last Summer" could possibly have predicted. In "Breach" (Billy Ray, 2007) he made the most of a part that was all compression, the hardest thing for an actor to do - hold everything in and yet allow the audience to see exactly what is being held in. Opposite Chris Cooper giving perhaps the best performance of a career full of great performances, Phillippe held his own. He seemed to possess a quality reminiscent almost of Harrison Ford - he allows us to work out the story through him, to shift gears with him.

However, the film which prompted these musings about Phillippe and Witherspoon and the radical divergence their careers have taken is Kimberly Pierce's "Stop Loss", released this year. Here Phillippe carries the picture, its moral and narrative weight all upon his back. And he does it effortlessly, with the ease and assurance of a natural leading man. Phillippe plays a young volunteer staff Sergeant returned from Iraq and forced to stay in the army by a "Stop Loss" who then goes awol while he weighs up his options. Its an odd, ambitious, angry film; a study of post traumatic stress disorder, an old-fashioned "boys are back in town"-style celebration of camaraderie and masculinity and Texas, and a blistering condemnation of the way the American working class have been betrayed by their Government. It was also produced by MTV films, which means it crackles with a strange tension - Pierce's realist, arty instincts creating friction with the more commercial demands of her backers. So that for all its determination to be authentic and simple and real, its cast (also including Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Abbie Cornish) is just too attractive, too Hollywood for comfort, its Chris Menges photography making everything just that touch too movie-beautiful, its screenplay too full of undeniably "movie" moments (a fight at a funeral graveside between two best friends stands out). But it works anyway, its gripping in its way, from the vicious opening streetfight in Iraq to the quiet, understated ending. It always tries to avoid the obvious, even if it sometimes fails, and Phillippe is great, anguished and angry and proud throughout.
It flopped, of course. I get the feelings most of his films will from now on. But better to make good unsuccessful films than bad successful ones, I think. I wonder if Witherspoon would agree.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

Golgolgolgolgolgolgolgolgolgol: 8

Ricardo Bochini, playmaker for Independiente his entire career, Maradona's understudy in the 1986 Argentina squad, and the player Riquelme is most often compared to in terms of that languidly stroked through-ball style. A class act:

Trevor Francis: mediocre summariser and sometime manager of third tier English football clubs? I just about remember him as a classy but ageing attacking player, too. But once upon a time he was the Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney of his day - a talented wonderkid who became the first £1 Million player. He scored lots of goals, won the European Cup, starred for England...

Speaking of deadly finishers, at one time Jean-Pierre Papin was unrivalled in European football for converting chances. Here he scores against Milan in the European Cup, clinical after a fine move and a great ball from Chris Waddle:

Roberto Carlos makes the ball do the seemingly impossible:

Poland's two greatest ever players, Lato and Boniek, combine in Spain in 1982:

There used to be an item on "Fantasy Football" called "Old football was rubbish". Well, not on the basis of this clip, it wasn't. The 1960 European Cup Final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt, at Hampden Park, finished 6-3. Real Madrid featured Alfredo DeStefano, still many people's pick for greatest player of all time (he's the balding, tall chap who always seems to have the ball at his feet) alongside Raymond Kopa and Ferenc Puskas (hes the chubby bloke who scores a bagful). So - nine goals, stepovers, backheels, long flowing passing moves, jinking dribbles...Old football was rubbish. Right: