Film #72: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

film 72 shadow of the vampire

Rating: 3.5/5

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Max Schreck, who will be portraying our vampire, Count Orlock. As you no doubt have heard, Max’s methods are somewhat… unconventional, but… I am sure you will come to respect his artistry in this matter.”

The first vampire movie, Nosferatu (1922) remains to this day one of the most eerie, haunting, and iconic films of all time – Max Schreck’s Count Orlok is arguably the least human representation of a vampire. There’s little hint as to the romanticism now overwhelming the horror aspects of these creatures; Orlok is entirely inhuman in both his physical appearance and his actions. It’s no wonder, then, that legend suggests Schreck was truly a vampire. He wasn’t (probably), but Shadow of the Vampire plays fast and loose with the myths and tales surrounding F R Murnau’s silent masterpiece (aptly subheaded A Symphony of Horror), presenting Schreck as the ultimate in difficult leading actors, and Murnau (John Malkovich) himself as a director obsessed with realising his vision.

If Schreck’s performance in Nosferatu is central to the film’s inate creepiness, Willem Dafoe’s performance as Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire is equally crucial, and he was (deservedly) Oscar-nominated for the role that was written specifically for him. The role of Orlok demands a strong performance from an unconventional actor, and has been played by three very different men – Schreck, Klaus Kinski (in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake), and Dafoe. Technically Dafoe plays Schreck-playing-Orlok, but the distinction is particularly blurry, as it soon transpires Schreck is simply a character created to disguise the fact that the vampire is real. Schreck-the-character and Orlok are one and the same, with Murnau so determined to create a piece of documentary-art that he’s willing to sacrifice several members of his cast and crew in the process. In this way, the film is not only about a myth, but about cinema – this extreme example of method acting demonstrates the problems it causes for other members of the cast and crew as well as the success of a truly authentic performance. Meanwhile, Murnau’s obsession cleverly alludes to a conflict within the film industry – the director as auteur, forced to work with others who may somehow taint or damage his unique vision. It’s particularly telling that Murnau is so derisive towards his writer, practically willing Orlok to devour him first.

Such is the success of both director E Elias Merhige’s attention to period detail, and Dafoe’s performance, that when scenes from Murnau’s original film feature, it’s almost impossible to see the distinction. Following the film’s troubled production, Merhige allows his audience to watch the silent movie come into being – the camera rolls, the iris is in, and the colours drain from the image as Gustav (Eddie Izzard) attempts to act – in that delightfully overwrought, overly emphatic style prevalent in the silent era – opposite Orlok. Accompanying these scenes are the unobtrusive yet evocative orchestral score (taken from John William’s score of the 1979 version of Dracula) and the soothing, distinctive tone of Malkovich’s voice as Murnau tells his actors the story of their shot. It’s highly effective, not only in providing a rather romantic representation of the film industry at the time, but also in bringing a literary feel to the film – after all, Nosferatu is famously not an adaptation of Dracula, but the story is undeniably, blatantly rooted in Bram Stoker’s gothic novel.

This is not just a period piece, however, and while at least a basic knowledge of Murnau’s Nosferatu is preferable, it’s not essential. Due to the overtly fictional reimagining of a genuine historic moment, it’s easiest to just accept the supernatural elements, and to enjoy the wonderful performances and, in particular, the brilliantly strained relationship between Murnau and his most difficult actor. Malkovich brings a natural, tightly-wound lunacy to Murnau that frequently threatens to explode. Dafoe is clearly in his element, hamming up the inhuman aspects of Schreck/Orlok – while the real Schreck brought a kind of naïve alienness to Orlok, Dafoe’s creation is indulgent in his strangeness, and often very funny as a result; both he and Izzard in particular encapsulate the black humour permeating the script.

It’s a shame then that Shadow of the Vampire becomes rather cluttered at the end, the script getting messy and seemingly struggling to find an ending that will satisfy all the various elements established to that point. The result, which brings both the supernatural elements and Murnau’s doggedly obsessive vision to a climax, feels far more rushed than the earlier scenes, which gradually built up the sense of on-set unease in much the same way as Nosferatu, with long, shadowy fingers creeping into the frame and ominous shadows in dark corners. Merhige’s version of this well-worn story remains more a well-made curio than a true classic; if it inspires more people to seek out the film on which it is based, then that can only be a good thing. As to whether it will convince audiences that Schreck really was a vampire, well, his performance is still strong enough for that myth to endure without any help.


Film #55: Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

film 55 lars and the real girl

Rating: 5/5

“You won’t be able to change his mind, anyway. Bianca’s in town for a reason.”

A few years before Ryan Gosling became every woman’s idea of a perfect man, he starred in this, a wonderfully heart-warming, quirky tale of small town life and one man’s attempt to finally forge a human connection. This is the first film I saw him in, and I remember being quite captivated by his understated performance. He’s barely recognisable here; his finely sculpted body is concealed beneath old-man-jumpers and layers upon layers of clothing, he’s sporting a moustache that makes him look far older than he really is, and he’s less muscly than cuddly, but he is utterly endearing. Yes, I probably sound like every other swooning fangirl, but for anyone critical of his recent acclaim, I implore you to watch Lars and the Real Girl – it will change your mind.

I’ve always been a fan of the unconventional love story, and this film definitely falls into that category. Like Secretary (another of my favourite films, which will get reviewed here at some point), in the wrong hands it could become sleazy or uncomfortable, but all the elements work in perfect harmony. What’s so great about this film is that there are no bad guys, no enemies; in Lars’ time of need, his whole community comes together to support him. In fact, despite some initial reservations about playing along with his delusion (particularly from his brother Gus), they all benefit from his girlfriend’s arrival – the “real girl” of the title, who just so happens to be a life size sex doll.

Bianca (the doll) appears one day in a giant wooden crate, her blank face covered in garish make-up and her body barely hidden underneath fishnet and pvc. Her first encounter with Gus (Paul Schneider) and his pregnant, well-meaning wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) is one of the most hilarious moments in the film; for the first time, Lars voluntarily comes to visit, to tell them of his new girlfriend. He met her on the internet, he tells them. She’s very religious, having been brought up by missionary nuns, and therefore doesn’t feel comfortable sleeping in the garage with him. And, would you believe it, someone stole her luggage and her wheelchair! Despite these slightly odd comments, Gus and Karin are so happy to discover he’s got a girlfriend that they dig out the new towels, make up the bed in the spare room, and invite Bianca over to dinner. And then, dumbfounded silence. Schneider’s face says it all – he perfectly encapsulates the utter disbelief that would no doubt be shared by anyone put in a similar situation. It’s a brilliant moment: Karin’s quiet confusion, Gus’ incredulous expression, Bianca’s blank stare, and Lars’ big, happy, oblivious smile.

Crucially, at no point does it feel as though either the characters, or us as an audience, are laughing at Lars. It’s the situations that are so entertaining; the reactions of the townsfolk as they are confronted with Bianca attending church and the doctors; their attempts to understand exactly what is going on; their willingness to play along if it means helping one man who, as they all confirm, is a nice boy, albeit a troubled one. Yet his delusion is not harming anyone and, as one particularly understanding church member points out, everyone has their strange quirks. As they take Bianca under their wing, she becomes an invaluable member of the community – her slutty clothes are replaced by more weather-appropriate attire, she gets a haircut, her make-up is wiped off, and she gets several jobs. In fact, she’s so busy, poor Lars starts getting rather sidelined, and gradually, this apparently perfect relationship begins developing cracks.

While Gosling is the star of the show, he is supported by a wonderful cast – Schneider and Mortimer are brilliant, as is Kelli Garner who plays Margo, a new girl at Lars’ workplace who is evidently rather smitten by the taciturn man, and Patricia Clarkson as the town’s doctor. The actors are all blessed with a pitch perfect screenplay by Nancy Oliver, who deservedly received an Oscar nomination (she lost out to Juno‘s Diablo Cody); there’s not a moment that feels out of place, contrived, or cruel. Lars and the Real Girl is a delicate, poignant, and truly hilarious tale – I can feel the clichés itching to come out: words like heart-warming, touching, quirky. But it is all of these things, and more.

Cinema Lottery #10

cinema 10 gravity

Release date: 8 November 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

After a string of films in which a (male) actor carries an entire film (Buried, 127 Hours, Brake, Moon), this time it’s Sandra Bullock’s turn. Gravity, written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is a claustrophobic, disorienting, and dizzying film – a disaster movie in space, with poor Ryan (Bullock) desperately trying to get back to Earth. Its plot is actually rather generic: Ryan is on her first mission, her charismatic associate Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, playing himself) is on his last. Inevitably, things go wrong, and continue to do so for a tense ninety minutes – Ryan’s misfortunes almost push her into Michael Bay territory (just consider the calamities that occur in Armageddon as a result of everyone’s sheer incompetence), but Gravity is executed with such a confidence and professionalism that it pulls it off. So Ryan is bounced off satellites and forced out of supposedly safe refuge, sent spinning wildly out of control into the vast nothingness of space and bombarded with high flying debris, and the audience is dragged along with her.

While Bullock should be commended for her performance, the other elements all work to support her role. The sound design is perfect – the “no sound in space” issue is bypassed by including muffled noises, as though one were hearing from within a spacesuit, and some uncomfortable, increasingly loud tones at moments of particular tension. Visually, Gravity is stunning, and its one of the few non-horror movies that really benefits from 3D, which enhances the feeling of weightlessness while also reinforcing the disorienting situations Ryan gets into. Cuaron captures the vast expanse of space, with the Earth calmly sitting below, and it is both beautiful and isolating – serene, yet terrifying. If ever there was a film made to be watched at an IMAX, by the way, this is it. Unrelenting and uncompromising, Gravity is one hell of a bumpy, breathless, ride. Suddenly, going into space doesn’t seem quite so romantic a notion.

Release date: 1 November 2013
Rating: 4/5

In 2009, journalist and former Labour party spin doctor Martin Sixsmith published an article in The Guardian, with the attention-grabbing headline, “The Catholic church sold my child”. It was a story that had originated as a throwaway human interest piece, but as the truth emerged, it became increasingly shocking. Fifty years prior, Philomena Lee had given birth to a son in secrecy in a convent in Tipperary. Like many other young, unmarried women in Ireland at the time, she was forced to hand over control of the child to the nuns, who in turn had them adopted, often to families in America, in exchange for “donations” to the church. Having never forgotten this child, Philomena’s attempts to find him proved futile, so she enlisted the help of Sixsmith, whose investigative journalism background helped her to eventually discover what had happened to her son.

Stephen Frears’ film is an unassuming piece of work – understated and subtle, with a focus on the performances of both Judi Dench (as Philomena) and Steve Coogan (as Sixsmith). Coogan has also written the screenplay, and here he proves not only his capabilities as a serious actor, but a deftness of touch in his writing; there are just enough moments of light-heartedness, predominantly as a result of the relationship between the cynical Sixsmith and Philomena, that stops the film from becoming saturated in melodrama. Dench is, as always, utterly convincing. Despite the actions of the Church, she remains steadfast in her faith, both in God and humanity, yet her naivety is matched with wisdom, good humour, and a quiet determination. In this tale of conspiracy and cover-ups, charting one of the most shameful moments in Irish history, it’s a testament to the actors that they are not overwhelmed by the plot. Yet Philomena remains rooted in truth, and doesn’t need to exaggerate the events it portrays. At its core, this is less a ruthless expose of the Catholic chuch’s sins, than a film about a mother trying to discover what happened to her child – it just happens to have far-reaching implications. It’s a subtle, yet confident, piece of filmmaking, with an excellent screenplay and superb central performances – if this makes it to awards season, surely Dench should be at least considered for another accolade.

Bad Grandpa
Release date: 23 October 2013
Rating: 2/5

If you’re not already a fan of Jackass, I wonder, would you even consider going to see their latest gross-out movie? This is now the fourth cinematic outing for the team, who now appears to consist entirely of Johnny Knoxville – none of the others are present, and Knoxville himself is buried under a mountain of old-man make-up. Replacing his friends is Jackson Nicoll, who plays 8-year-old Billy, the grandson of the titular grandpa and easily the most engaging character – it mustn’t be that easy for a child to keep a straight face in these absurd situations, but Nicoll succeeds, and even manages to invite some degree of pathos while doing so. Yet Bad Grandpa is a flawed and self-indulgent film that makes some serious errors in judgement regarding its style.

There are two major problems at play. One is the decision to combine a fictional narrative with hidden camera scenes capturing the reactions of real people when confronted with this irresponsible, foul-mouthed, disgusting, perverted grandpa and his grandson; not only is the narrative flimsy at best, but it creates some suspicion as to the “realness” of the rest of it. The second big problem is the reactions, which are almost entirely apathetic; perhaps it’s a shocking indictment of American society that people are so accepting of the absurd and ridiculous, but more likely is that many people suspected some kind of foul play – we’ve become so saturated in hidden camera shows that it’s no longer a novelty. These might be the biggest problems, but they’re not the only ones. Knoxville churns out the now expected series of skits, and they’re all as immature as the next, lacking any real subtlety, intelligence, or originality, while, presumably, all those in on the joke pat themselves on the back. Unfortunately, no one else is laughing. There are a few moments, admittedly, when I sniggered a little, but every single one of those moments was in the trailer. My advice? You’ll know yourself whether this movie is for you or not and, if you think it is, my review is irrelevant. If you think it’s not for you, stay well away. You will gain nothing from seeing it.

Closed Circuit
Release date: 25 October 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

I’ve seen a whole bunch of British, gritty, political thrillers over the course of these press days, and each has been as generic and forgettable as the next. So Closed Circuit came as a pleasant surprise – not amazing, but by far the most polished and interesting film of its kind that I’ve seen this year. It’s also, intriguingly, almost entirely a red herring – despite the twists and turns, the actual outcome of the court case becomes irrelevant; instead, the focus remains fixed firmly on the ways in which politics (and politicians) invade and corrupt the supposedly impartial legal system, engineering situations to save face and get the result they desire. In doing so, the film manages to sidestep potential problems in a satisfactory solution, for example, because the solution is unnecessary.

Eric Bana is Martin Rose, the replacement attorney for a suspected terrorist, who supposedly masterminded a horrific attack on Borough Market. Along with another attorney (Rebecca Hall), he is tasked with defending a suspect with a mass of evidence so secret that not even Rose is privy to it; thus begins the conspiracy that the two lawyers must decide to either fight or accept. Bana and Hall are supported by a solid cast, including Jim Broadbent, Ciaran Hinds, and Julia Stiles, the latter of whom features for no reason whatsoever – as an American journalist, she appears in two scenes and is then quickly dispatched (off screen) and forgotten about. Her inclusion is one of the most obvious flaws in the film, which is, despite some weaknesses (Rose’s family life is hinted at but unexpanded and adds little; the title and opening scenes’ emphasis on CCTV footage is also ultimately irrelevant) reasonably engaging and intriguing. It may not be remembered in years to come, but seeing as I can remember it a day later, it has already exceeded my expectations.

Film #42: Waking Life (2001)

film 42 waking life

Rating: 2/5

“They say that dreams are only real as long as they last. Couldn’t you say the same thing about life?”

Ten years after his feature debut Slacker, indie favourite Richard Linklater returns to the meandering, narrativeless form he started with. Waking Life, however, has a more recognisable purpose, despite its lack of plot (in the traditional sense): its protagonist wanders through dreams, meeting a number of pretentious intellectuals who discuss the meaning of life and dreams. Yet “discuss” is really the wrong word, suggesting some kind of interaction or debate – for the majority of the film, the nameless main character (Wiley Wiggins) is a passive observer and listener and, as a result, much of the movie seems like a series of lectures. Whether this appeals or not will most likely be determined by individual taste; personally, I was frequently bored, and found their lengthy philosophical monologues more tiresome and condescending than insightful or deep.

What makes these lectures marginally more interesting is the visual form of the film. After the unconventional animated form of the previous Movie Lottery pick, Waltz With Bashir, Waking Life also eschews live action for animation. Here, however, it is even more hallucinatory in style, taking on the qualities of a delirious trip rather than a dream. Initially shot on hand-held video cameras, the live action of Waking Life has been rotoscope-animated in post-production, and the result is a curious, not always pleasant, experience. While early scenes are fully capable of inducing motion-sickness, with buildings and backgrounds warping and wobbling constantly, thankfully this calms down somewhat as the film progresses, though it never really stops. It’s highly stylised and abstract, reminiscent of cubism and surrealism; faces are unfinished, scenery is roughly implied, and the characters’ dialogue is reflected back in the animated form of the sequences. Yet while I was undoubtedly impressed by the film’s visual flair, it was less enjoyable than disorienting – although, considering the subject matter, perhaps this is the point.

And what about the subject matter? Waking Life‘s intellectualism is at the fore throughout, and Linklater name-drops all the right people (Bazin, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Truffaut) and all the right -isms (existentialism, humanism, nihilism, and so on) to delight the pretentious college student. Its intellectual capital is front and centre at all times, and the way in which it is presented could alternately be viewed as smart, or annoying. There were times I struggled to not roll my eyes at the clichés – a free-thinking quirky twenty-something claiming “I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be ant, you know?” before proceeding to talk about her plans for a self-aware, ironic, meta soap opera, for instance. These comments, and the many others, are all delivered with an overt sense of sincerity, seriousness and, dare I say, smugness, and perhaps were the film to have adopted a slightly more tongue-in-cheek approach, it may have held my attention for longer. It’s only in the final few minutes that the main character becomes anything more than a blank canvass; his frustration at the never-ending nature of his dream is something that I could relate to.

If I seem especially derisory towards Waking Life, perhaps I can temper that by saying this is not really my kind of movie. Bought on a whim because it looked intriguing, it quickly became clear that I would struggle to stay interested. Fans of Linklater will no doubt get more from it than I did. For example, having not seen Before Sunrise or its two sequels, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s appearance meant nothing to me, although their bedroom scene, jarring in that our dreamer-protagonist is entirely absent, makes more sense now that I have discovered they were reprising their previous roles. Similarly, certain scenes are reminiscent of Slacker, and a number of familiar faces re-emerge (in a fashion). Yet I found my mind constantly wandering away from the film; I zoned in an out, found myself staring blankly at the screen without hearing anything. Perhaps this is a good way to watch a movie that it in essence about the nature of dreaming, and of mindlessly walking through life, but none of the messages, delivered in their incessantly intellectual manner, actually made any impression on me. By writing a screenplay as a series of monologues, Linklater offers no counter-argument to balance what is being claimed and, without debate, my attention rapidly waned. There is no opportunity for self-discovery, no chance to formulate your own opinions, no need to reach your own conclusions. While I can appreciate Waking Life for its visuals, and can understand how certain audiences could praise both its animated style and intellectual content, neither of these aspects were enough; as an experiment, the film is an interesting curio, but I remain underwhelmed.

Film 31: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)

film 31 whats eating gilbert grape

Rating: 4/5

“We don’t really move. I mean, we’d like to, but… my mom is sort of attached to the house. Attached is, I guess, not the right word. She’s pretty much wedged in.”

It’s easy to forget, given his current preference for Tim Burton caricatures and eccentric pirate roles, that Johnny Depp can do more than act quirky. While he is undoubtedly enjoying his career – he’s said he’d be happy to play Jack Sparrow forever – it’s all becoming rather formulaic, and it’s such a shame. What was once unique and impressive is now unremarkable and, with upcoming film The Lone Ranger and a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film in the pipeline, it’s all getting rather tedious. Quite frankly, it’s hard to watch What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? without at least a twinge of regret as to the progression of Depp’s acting career. As the title character, there’s not even the slightest hint of exaggeration; this is a nuanced, subtle performance, and remains one of his finest to date. It’s important to make that clear, because it could easily be forgotten when compared with that of Leonardo DiCaprio’s who, as Gilbert’s younger brother Arnie, utterly steals the show.

Before Romeo + Juliet and Titanic propelled DiCaprio into superstardom, he gained his first Oscar nomination for this role. The fact that he lost out to Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive) remains one of the worst decisions ever made by the Academy: his portrayal of a mentally handicapped teen is so entirely convincing that many people didn’t realise it was a performance. He is superb as Arnie, whose tics and twitches, shrieks and whoops never feel forced or over-emphasised. He is insufferable but harmless, infuriating and sympathetic, and every scene in which Depp and DiCaprio appear together (and there are many) is a joy to watch.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? starts and ends with a road stretching far into the horizon. It’s the entrance and exit to Endora, a dusty fictional town in America where Gilbert and his family live. Despite the vast open spaces and expansive sky, Gilbert is trapped in this sleepy hamlet, weighed down by his family responsibilities. He works at a local grocery store, which is slowly being put out of business by a new chain supermarket on the outskirts of town. He sleeps with an older, married woman. He cares for Arnie, and he lets curious children get a peek at his morbidly obese, housebound mother as a way of venting his own shame and frustration. Nothing ever changes and his life, and its accompanying burdens, seems inescapable because, crucially, Gilbert is a good person. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s the essence of the character. He can’t walk away, no matter how much he desperately wants to, because he loves his family, and they need him.

Gilbert’s mundane existence is suddenly challenged by the arrival of Becky (Juliette Lewis) and her grandmother, whose mobile home unexpectedly breaks down as they are passing through Endora. In Becky, Gilbert sees opportunity – she represents the rest of the world to him, with her free-thinking, worldly attitude and nomadic lifestyle. She’s the closest thing in the film to a cliché, but perhaps it’s necessary; her soulful philosophising and non-judgemental attitude may make her a bit saccharine, but she has to stand in contrast to the pleasant inertia of Endora and the unambitious contentment of the people in it. Gradually, Gilbert begins to acknowledge – if only to himself – that the road passing through his town could lead him out of it.

Based on a novel by Peter Heges, this is a delicate, understated, simple film filled with extraordinary performances. John C Reilly and Crispin Glover, in supporting roles as Gilbert’s likeable friends, are solid as always but, with the exception of the then unknown DiCaprio, the film’s biggest surprise is Darlene Cates as Momma. Discovered by Heges after an appearance on US talk show Sally Jessy Raphael, her weight and the real self-imposed imprisonment in her home, not to mention the ridicule and mockery she has been subjected to, are mirrored in the film. To describe Momma as a performance seems inaccurate: she embodies the role and all its complexities, presenting herself to the world and doing so with an admirable sense of self-awareness and dignity.

There are no villains in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?; instead, the film is filled with a deep sense of humanity. The characters, their motivations, and the decisions they make, are all entirely believable and, while its plot could potentially veer into the melodramatic, Heges’ screenplay demonstrates a lightness of touch and some perfectly judged moments of humour. There is a simple beauty in the film also, as director Lasse Hallström brings Endora to life with cinematic shots of the impassive landscape and the huge skies above it. It’s a wonderful glimpse into small town American life that feels natural, delivered with sincerity and kindness.

Film #7: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

film 7 a beautiful mind

Rating: 4.5/5

“Man is capable of as much atrocity as he has imagination.”

A Beautiful Mind is the perfect example of a film that you buy because it’s really rather excellent, but it then sits on your shelves unwatched. Viewing it for a second time is also a completely different experience from the first; it is not spoiled, merely altered. It is difficult, on repeated viewings, to not be dragged out of the narrative – particularly in the first hour, filmmaking techniques become the focus of attention, more than the characters’ actions. However, through this, the subtlety of Ron Howard’s direction becomes more obvious and, thankfully, the film does not rely entirely on some clever parlour tricks.

Russell Crowe is excellent as John Nash, a brilliant but socially awkward mathematician whose work at Princeton brings him to the attention of the government, who covertly hire him to crack codes sent by the Russians. It is the 1950s, and the Cold War was in full swing; it was not unheard of for civilians to be employed for their individual talents. Yet for Nash, events take a turn for the worse as he becomes further embroiled in his double life, trying to juggle his teaching, spying, and his family, all the while becoming more paranoid and isolated.

Based on a true story – John Nash is still alive today – the “twist” may not be such a revelation to people familiar with the mathematician. His situation is handled with serious earnest throughout: A Beautiful Mind is clear Oscar bait, so much so that to praise it now almost seems a cliché. As films go, it is not particularly spectacular either visually or technically, though a polished professionalism permeates every scene. Each moment feels deliberate and considered, carefully orchestrated and prepared. It may not be ground-breaking filmmaking, but it is undoubtedly very well executed.

Although nominated for an Academy Award, Crowe lost out to Denzel Washington (Training Day, 2001). Crowe’s performance is very much an actor’s performance: although understated and dedicated, it is difficult to not see Crowe as John Nash. The character is perfectly represented, but it never becomes more than a representation. In contrast, Jennifer Connelly, who won Best Supporting Actress, is utterly believable as Nash’s wife, struggling with a baby and an unexpectedly life-changing situation. The acting throughout is excellent; Paul Bettany adds much needed energy to his role as Charles, Nash’s Princeton roommate and best friend, while Ed Harris and Christopher Plummer bring further respectability to the film, playing smaller, but no less important roles.

There are some flaws – the most interesting moments in the film are those showing the strain placed on Nash’s marriage, and his relationship with his wife in contrast to, for example, Charles. Yet in the latter portion events become more rushed, and Connelly disappears from screen, popping up again in the final moments with so much ageing make-up that it renders her unrecognisable. Similarly, his son features for mere minutes on screen, growing from an infant to a young adult without any sense of upbringing. Yet these problems serve to remind us that, predominantly, this is a film about Nash, whose life is, really, filled with too much for a two hour biopic.

It is little wonder that A Beautiful Mind won Best Film in 2002: mere months after the events of September 11, the 2002 Oscars were a muted affair. Here, Howard gave the Academy – and cinema audiences – a film about redemption, about a man dealing with his demons, who emerges triumphant; uplifting and inspirational, which was exactly what was needed at the time. And, much like 2011’s Best Film, The King’s Speech, this film is an actor’s film, one that eschews trickery or experimentation to focus specifically on the story and the performances. In this respect, it achieves its goals perfectly.

Film #4: Slacker (1991)

film 4 slacker
Rating: 3/5

“Who’s ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order not to create?”

Composed as a series of linear vignettes, Richard Linklater’s second feature film – the film that gained him early recognition as an interesting new indie director – is overly long, but oddly hypnotic. On the surface it seems simple in both its premise and its direction, though considering it more thoroughly, Slacker is impressive precisely because of this simplicity.

Set in Austin, Texas, on a sunny summer’s day, we become privy to brief glimpses into a variety of people’s lives – little portions of conversations, many of which take the form of extended speeches, rather than an exchange between two people. Each character leads to another, who leads to another, creating a film that is constant in its style and, despite the seemingly meandering nature, quite specific in its intent.

It is misleading to claim this is a comedy, although it is almost inevitable that at least one of the many anecdotes, opinions, and general musings will amuse – among this vast cast of unnamed unknowns, it is likely that something will ring true, and in that truth will come humour. Or perhaps one of the stranger stories – the conspiracy theorist whittling on about the moon landings, or the woman who prophesies the death of the next person to walk past them – will get some laughs. Or maybe it will simply be that, by succumbing to the constant, pointless onslaught of inane ramblings, exasperation becomes bemusement.

Slacker is almost entirely devoid of music, having no score to accompany it. This, coupled with the seemingly never-ending connections between the stories, makes the film seem long – too long, really. There is no way of gauging when (or if!) it will finish – it is not a circular film, the characters do not share some clever relationship with each other that results in everything being neatly tied up, there is no greater purpose that unites them. It starts to feel self-indulgent, particularly in the final section, which reeks of indie art student and seems both forced and pretentious. It is as though Linklater himself couldn’t find a way to stop following first one person, then another, down the wide, empty streets of Austin, and decided to show that the film is not like the aimless characters it contains, but a work of art with a purpose. And perhaps it is, for it achieves a certain tone very successfully; the unrelated nature of the stories all share a central theme, that of (mostly) young, educated adults filled with ideas and opinions but lacking any sense of direction or motivation. So they sit in coffee shops discussing politics, or stand on street corners fighting the system with home made t-shirts, or they stay in bed because going to the lake is something one has to prepare for. As the camera follows them, the world passes them by.

In recent years, Linklater has become more mainstream, directing films such as School of Rock (2003) and Me and Orson Welles (2008). Slacker is a curio, and it’s easy to see why it has become an indie classic – slow, aesthetically simple with an emphasis on realism, even down to its mundanity, it is understated but well filmed, monotonous but engrossing. After watching it, it is difficult to remember the majority of the vignettes, but the overarching atmosphere lingers.