Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Foxy Feminism

Since its premier at the 53rd annual British Film Festival in London, Fantastic Mr Fox is quickly becoming a hit with parents and children alike and it’s easy to see why. The film’s use of quirky stop motion and music gives it a flare of originality. However, I couldn’t escape the feeling of disappointment (cue familiar eyeroll) at the film’s portrayal of the all too familiar gender roles. Perhaps it was due to the casting of Meryl Streep in the lead female role that caused me to subconsciously prepare for what I thought would be a more modern take on a classic tale. I left feeling disheartened. The only female character with any substantial screen time was Mrs Fox (voiced by Meryl Streep). Furthermore her character operated predominately within the domestic sphere that traditionally has stifled many great female roles. The primary function of Mrs Fox was to act as the ‘voice of reason’ that prohibits Mr Fox (George Clooney) from living his charismatic life of enjoyment and danger.

The climax of the film takes the form of a battle between the displaced animals (led by Mr Fox) and the three farmers Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon). One of the most memorable scenes in Fantastic Mr Fox is the one in which Mr Fox is shown rounding up and assessing his allies’ strengths. The dominance of masculinity is most striking in this scene and those that follow. The physical battle is shown to be a male arena, with Mrs Fox and the other female characters not permitted to leave the domestic setting. In addition, they are given only fleeting appearances in the narrative, with the possible excepting of the young fox which becomes the source of tension between Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson). The character is never fully explored and left merely as an object of desire for the young males.

Although adults will undoubtedly flock to see Fantastic Mr Fox, the film’s primary audience will be children. As such, it is important that there be a female character for young female, and male, audience members to relate to. This is absent in the film.

Fantastic Mr Fox looks set for cult status, it’s just a cursing shame that Wes Anderson failed to bring Roald Dahl’s classic tale into a modern society.

Rant over.

I want Moore.

Julianne Moore's greatest tool? Her mouth...

Whether she's gasping for breathe in [safe]...

Erupting on a truly deserving pharmacist in Magnolia...

Or struggling to maintain the perfect image of wife and mother in Far From Heaven...

Her mouth is the core, the indicator for the rest of her performance. You can go further with her mousy Laura Brown in The Hours, how her lips struggle to utter a word, or her Barbara Baekeland in Savage Grace, where her mouth is more deadly than any weapon.

Moore's mouth is a cinematic treasure trove, and what makes it all the more delicious is that it is also responsible for one of the most infectious laughs I have ever heard and fortunately a reoccuring presence during her Screen Talk that coincided with the 53rd London Film Festival, where she screened not one but two new films, A Single Man and Chloe. (Both of which I was lucky enough to have seen, and will discuss later).

Humble to the point of frustration (how I didn't scream "YOU ARE A GODDESS" I am unsure), Moore was as intelligent, entertaining and enchanting as her film roles would suggest and any hints of superiority, in any capacity, were distinctly absent. In fact her message was quite clear, acting is simply a job and film is a director's medium, actors are only their vessel for which they can achieve their vision and be a cultural force. This was accompanied by an interesting ancedote of new-mum Moore on the set of Magnolia, where she would instinctively alternate from her role as gold digger in the midst of hysteria to mother rather than complaining "I can't mother my child, I'm in character!". Both interesting scenarios...that would surely scare any child senseless.

The questions - from the The Script Factory's director, Briony Hanson - played safe with general interest; how did you get into X character, how do you find working with X, etc. And the interview progressed rather smoothly (quite unlike my usual encounters with Moore in the cinema), only on a handful of occassions did Hanson trigger the unanticapated from Moore. And in a flash, she was gone. As this flash lasted approx an hour and a half I cannot complain, but the greedy film fanatic inside me naturally wanted more. What about Savage Grace?, future theatre work?, and - most importantly for me - talk about your mouth!

Fortunately there are always her performances to obsess over, and her work in A Single Manand Chloe are worthy additions to her astonishing array of characters. A Single Man is undoubtedly the greater film, and will surely land her a fifth Oscar nomination come March 2010 yet it is Chloe that proves more interesting from the perspective of Moore. It sums up my own feelings on her career; in 'indie' film she rules as Queen, but once she steps into the realm of the commercial she begins to struggle.

The first hour or so acts as a wonderful examination of long-term relationships that have grown loveless and the loss of sexuality. Then a 'twist', more a disjointed change of characters and genre, throws all this good work out the window (teehehe) in a desperate attempt to incorporate a bunny-boiler finale. It is an odd decision that reaps no rewards, unless you enjoy your paint-by-numbers Hollywood thrillers with lesbian overtones (I imagine, to my dismay, many do!). Only Moore comes out unscathed; she could anchor a ship with the automatic empathy she summons. Just look at this failed attempt at a smile for the 'unsuspecting' prostitute she is about to enlist in order to discover her husband's infidelities...

She is wonderful, no?

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Julianne Moore. 23.10.09. 18:30. BFI Southbank.

A sort of unknowing curiousity circled my head as we made our way to our seats in an auditorium that was to be for the next two hours the location for an interview with the one and only Julianne Moore. Certainly the person beside me was almost bursting out of his seat with excitement, anticipation and what was quite frankly a death-defying bubble of love for this woman. But what about the rest of us? Sure I knew who she was. Did I like Children of Men? Of course. Far From Heaven? It frustrated me. Was I really aware of anything else this woman had been in? Not really. So what the hell was I doing amongst all these 'fans' waiting to hear this woman, about whom my lack of knowledge didn't even permit me to form any sort of opinion, and allow us rather insignificant individuals a brief glimpse into her fantastical existence? Well, Michael, I owe it to you. your absolute adoration of this woman is so infectious and admirable that I wanted to be a part of your dreams coming true. Yes I was curious, intrigued, but perhaps, quite ashamedly, I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. From what I did know, I wasn't exactly struck down by her glamour, her beauty, or even necessarily her presence. But as she glided into that auditorium, and a room full of heads, mine included, in a split second spun to see this wonderful figure make her entrance, to say I was taken aback is something of a understatement. In that brief moment she owned the room and everyone in it. A head of cascading auburn hair framing what I never thought I'd consider to be one of the most beautifully stunning faces I'd ever seen. Her, again surprisingly, petite figure dressed head to toe in black chic; she was, quite simply, beautiful. And so the interview began. Conducted by Briony Hanson, whose rather impressive back catalogue, including an ownership to co-devising the first ever Sing-along-a-Sound-Of-Music, had earned her the all-empowering position of directing Ms. Moore's deconstruction to us.

With crossed legs and an air of effortless ease, Ms. Moore responds to Hanson's intrusions with a charming wit and infectious laugh, both necessary considering the, shall we say, near-the-knuckle nature of the talk. Why is it that you seem to consistently appear in such controversial roles? Incestuous Mother? Drug Addicted Porn Star? Etc? Well, it's not about the controversy. Boogie Nights is not a film about sex and drugs (although it is), it's about finding yourself. The nudity is not about getting your clothes off, it's not crass, it's not indecent, it's all about the messages: the connotations. And as for the nudity, well, it's a job. Yes, a job. Albeit high profile, but a job nonetheless. Do Oscar nominations put pressure on your next film? No, they get me my next film. They pay the mortgage. That's not to say Ms. Moore goes about her 'job' in a nonchalant, dismissive fashion. No. Into her work she inspires a commitment and a trust so unremitting and so admirable that her success speaks for itself. What this woman is, however, is realistic. Humble. Gracious. A preciously treasured family life forbids her career to become all emcompassing: "No I can't take care of my son, I'm in character" she jokes. A stab a Daniel Day-Lewis? Perhaps. But it made us laugh. Why did you first work with Paul Thomas Anderson? Because his script was beautiful. Why did you first work with Todd Haynes? Because his script was beautiful. Do you get disappointed when your films are criticised? Who wouldn't? Do you have a piece of work you feel most proud of? No, I feel most proud when I'm on set, when I achieve something. The end product is the director's baby, and being in the moment of producing a scene, that's mine.

Perhaps Hanson's questions were slightly repetitive. Perhaps the constant revisiting to Ms. Moore's seeming preference for erotic controversy was arguably in fact a guilty reflection of Hanson's own adoration? Perhaps. But whilst one interviewer's desires were satisfied, so were a whole room of spectator's. Taking her career seriously, but not herself, Julianne Moore is infectious to listen to and a beauty to look at. Her attitude to life is admirable: a woman truly grateful for the hand she has been dealt, but certainly not one to take any of it for granted.

As for me? The cynical but curious spectator amongst a sea of adoration? A little crush? I think so.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

And so it begins...

A look at Fantastic Mr Fox

Growing up in Britain during the last few decades of the 20th Century, you can't have failed to have encountered Roald Dahl's work in some form or another. A friend of mine read his books well into high school, I'm sure I still have a VHS of Danny The Champion Of The World in a box somewhere. (We had two copies of the book in the house). I was taken to see the film of The Witches as a ninth birthday treat (looking back, I think it's quite cool that my parents took me to see a Nic Roeg film at such an early age - surely they wouldn't have done that had they not trusted the source material so much). My trip to New York in 2005 was topped off by a visit to a 42nd Street cinema to catch Tim Burton's version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Wes Anderson's decision to film Fantastic Mr Fox raised some questions. Could he move from live action to animation? Would an American director treat the material in the same way as a Brit would?

Those questions were answered watching the film. Anderson and his writing partner Noah Baumbach apparently stayed at Dahl's old house in Great Missenden to write the screenplay, and the film was shot at Three Mills studios in London. (Just a short distance from Elliptical Edits central). Though the leads would be American (Clooney and Streep, with smaller roles for regular Anderson collaborators Jason Schwartzman,i Bill Murray and Owen Wilson), like Burton's ... Chocolate Factory, the film appears to be set in a fictional country that is a strange amalgam of the US and the UK.

Given that Anderson was the director, I was only reminded that it was a "kid's film" by the trailers that preceded it (though I have to say I was relieved by the absence of the increasingly tiring Orange mobile phone adverts).

From the first shot it is recognisable as Anderson's work - quirky dysfunctional families are his stock in trade, which makes him a perfect match for Dahl's writing. Dahl's usual mix of mischief, low level crime and mistrust of authority figures and joined by an Oedipal subplot involving Mr Fox's son and his cousin.

I was wrong - this is no kid's film, though I'm sure children will enjoy it, and though it's perhaps not as dark as some of Dahl's work, adults will find much to love. Anyone who saw footage of Dahl at work in his writing shed will note the similarities between that and Mr Fox's study. The deliberately, defiantly rough stop motion animation is an antidote to those who use CGI as a matter of course. It is perhaps no surprise that Bill Murray described his visit to the studios as "one of the most exciting days I have ever had in the film business." Coming from a man who has played Hunter S. Thompson and must have spent days covered in marshmallow for Ghostbusters, that's high praise.

There is nothing that will scare, and plenty that will delight children, and enough for adults to enjoy, Fantastic Mr Fox is a crossover gem. It also includes the best cameo from a former Britpop star since Damon Albarn popped up in Antonia Bird's excellent Face.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Invention/Creation/Evolution of Ricky Gervais

THE INVENTION OF LYING exists in a world where the concept of lying has never materialised. Everyone thus speaks exactly what they think, all the time. Gervais invents lying. Gervais becomes powerful through his invention. Gervais accidentally creates a religion after lying about an afterlife to his dying mother. Gervais becomes more powerful. Gervais cannot bring himself to use lying as a means to attract women.

For this is a film written, starring and directed by a singular creative force, it therefore bears a significant imprint of His personality. From the film’s very beginning (the opening credits) Ricky Gervais’ nasal voice is present criticising the production companies that appear on screen. The voice is the same as the film’s lead character yet its source is never identified, left to float beyond narrative into the non-diegetic. Gervais thus plays Himself; His character, His own personality and His own creation of ‘The Man in the Sky’ (a perverse, quasi-holy trinity).

Not a hindrance. Through Gervais sacrificing so much of His self to the film He sets a considerable impression of His fears/His loves/His hates upon it. His comic commodity is represented in full; complete with exasperated eye rolling, that wonderfully chipped smile and His broken delivery of a drowning man.

HIS FEARS are exorcised in the film’s opening half hour. Gervais systematically works through the insecurities He possesses by allowing other characters (that He has created!) to insult/degrade Him in a manner that flirts between the extremities of Pathos and the discomfort of self-loathing. The insults are not limited to His on-screen persona and situation (no money/may lose job), but predominantly extend to His own appearance (fat/snubby-nosed/unattractive). That these are physical aspects, ones that transcend character and are inescapable aspects of Himself, allude to the personal nature of Gervais’ anxieties. Indeed, the main problem lying between Gervais and complete happiness (Hilary Swank) is His own imperfect genes – that He cannot escape His fat/snubby-nosed/unattractive children He will undoubtedly create in procreation. To exhibit these anxieties in such a public manner (through the medium of film, and before that television and stand-up) project a portrait of Gervais as an anxious man.

HIS LOVES are inherent in the style of THE INVENTION OF LYING. The film, in its direction, contains a certain level of immaturity (or rather, innocence). But this only adds to its charm, as though all that Gervais knows about filmmaking has been absorbed from the generic romantic comedies the film’s narrative spine is based on. The sickly sweet dialogue/the message that one needs to look past appearance and see that which lies beneath/the constant violins soaring at any hint of emotion/the functional editing = a fresh enthusiasm for cinema, utilising the medium as a simple story teller. An approach unabashed by the experience of practical or the weight of theory. This never seems to annoy, and instead comes off as a sweet and charming disarmament. However, the innocence projected drowns the underlying theme of Atheism remarkably well. A masterstroke by Gervais if He wants to succeed in His beloved America.

HIS HATES, as alluded to above, are lost beneath the shine of an aesthetic designed for a white, American, middle-class Christian (male, conservative). That this wholly generic style of filmmaking is so drenched in a particular ideology makes the Atheist conscience of THE INVENTION OF LYING merely a sleeping depth. It is easy enough to be gently swayed by its undercurrents, but the film will never incite anyone to feel any differently (or rather, more actively) about their religious position. Thus, it is this very innocence that ceases THE INVENTION OF LYING from becoming a significantly Atheist text (a reading that should be bursting at its seams, but remains predominantly ignored). For an ideology to be successfully communicated (in a way that encourages activism/debate/empowerment) it can evidently not be to the passive spectator classical narrative editing conditions. Although a brave full debut from Gervais, and a theme He will hopefully become more confident with in the future, THE INVENTION OF LYING never breaks from its genre’s norms. It is merely a silent step in the right direction.