Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tom Hardy, Britain's most impressive actor

Like many film geeks, I don't usually get as excited about actors as I do about directors. It isn't often that I look forward to seeing a film just because of who's in it, and when considering my favorite films, I nearly always think of them in terms of who directed them - I like this film by Kubrick or that film by Peckinpah. I'm not really sure why that is, but I suppose it's because I believe a film should ultimately reflect its director's overall vision, and part of that vision encompasses whom the director chooses to cast. I don't at all mean to diminish the contributions that actors make to a film's success (or don't make, since a lousy performance can unquestionably sink an otherwise enjoyable film), and I realize that the general public doesn't feel the same way. In fact, they probably feel exactly the opposite, and in many cases a film's financial performance will depend in large part upon the bankability of its star(s). I guess I've always viewed actors as essentially another tool in the director's toolbox. Occasionally, though, a particular actor rises above all the others and catches my attention; someone who is so bloody good that they cause me to rethink my whole stance on the importance of directing vs. acting. British actor Tom Hardy is one of them. Recently seen in his highest profile role to date - the villainous Bane in the finale to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises - Hardy has impressed me enormously with his immersive approach to performing.

My first exposure to Hardy was his role in 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis, in which he portrays Praetor Shinzon, a Reman rebel who turns out to be a clone of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (if you don't understand all that, it's OK). It was one of his first prominent roles, and he disappeared into the persona of the bald, sinister alien leader (an acting style which would serve him well in the future). While I admired his performance, and I thought he held his own in his scenes with Patrick Stewart, I took no especial notice of him at the time. Between 2002 and 2010, I saw two more films in which he appeared - Ridley Scott's 2001 war film Black Hawk Down and the 2004 Daniel Craig crime drama Layer Cake - but to be honest, I don't remember seeing him in either of them. I presume his roles were small, and in the case of Black Hawk Down, it was rather difficult to keep all the actors straight amidst the constant chaos of the battle scenes.

Then, in 2010, I saw Christopher Nolan's mind-bending blockbuster, Inception, and all of a sudden, there he was. Although part of a strong ensemble, Hardy nevertheless stands out as the character known as Eames, who uses his impersonation skills to manipulate people inside their own dreams. In what was an otherwise very serious film, Hardy was given the lion's share of the film's humor, including the crowd-pleasing line, "You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling," dryly delivered as he pushes an assault rifle-wielding Joseph Gordon-Levitt aside and takes out a dream-generated "bad guy" with a grenade launcher. (By the way, it was Hardy's idea to add the "darling" at the end of that line, which makes it that much more sublime.) Hardy gives a delightfully assured performance as the prickly, playful and roguish Eames, and this was the first time I really thought to myself, "Who is this guy?"

My ultimate acknowledgement of Hardy's prodigious talent came earlier this year. I had become a fan of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising, Drive), and I was working my way through some of his films that I hadn't seen. In the process of doing so, I watched Refn's 2008 film Bronson, starring - you guessed it - Tom Hardy. The film tells the fact-based story of Charlie Bronson (born Michael Peterson), known as "the most violent prisoner in Britain." The real-life Bronson, who adopted the name of the tough-guy actor, has spent the majority of his life incarcerated, and is notorious for repeatedly assaulting prison guards, taking hostages and damaging property. Hardy essays the title role, and his acting is nothing short of astounding; I would go so far as to call it one of the best performances I've ever seen. He dominates the film, completely inhabiting the role in a way I've seldom experienced. To be completely honest, I didn't fully grasp that it was the same actor I had seen in Inception until well after the film was over - he was that unrecognizable.

Refn's film ingeniously presents its main character in a multitude of ways: Hardy as Bronson narrates the film via voiceover; he breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses us, the audience; he performs a one-man stage show in whiteface makeup before an audience that we suspect isn't really there; and, of course, he interacts with the film's other characters, whether that consists of politely serving tea to a prison guard or engaging in a brutal brawl with five of them while dressed in, well, nothing. Hardy masterfully navigates throughout these wildly divergent styles without missing a beat. He becomes Charlie Bronson, and according to a filmed interview with one of Bronson's close family friends, he absolutely nails it. Refn's film has been compared to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, in that it presents us with a frankly sociopathic protagonist who is seemingly incapable of being rehabilitated but nevertheless worms his way into the audience's psyche and firmly lodges himself there. It's to Hardy's credit that this often morally reprehensible character still manages to come off as charming and even likeable without downplaying his brutishness one iota. Although he won the British Independent Film Award for best actor for Bronson, Hardy's performance in this film remains undeservedly obscure to just about everyone but film buffs; this is easily Oscar-caliber material, and it should be seen by anyone who appreciates great acting.

Hardy doesn't just occupy his roles in a thespian sense. Like Christian Bale (his co-star in The Dark Knight Rises), he's not disinclined to drastically alter his physique to suit a role, but while Bale endured a dramatic weight loss for his role in The Machinist, Hardy often does exactly the opposite, bulking up to various degrees for films such as Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises and the 2011 drama Warrior, in which he portrays a troubled mixed martial arts fighter. Watching Hardy in something like Guy Ritchie's comedic caper film RocknRolla, it's difficult to comprehend that the svelte actor who plays the genial Handsome Bob in that film is the same one who plays the hulking, psychopathic villain Bane in TDKR. Bane was intended to be a formidable adversary; one who could not only outsmart Batman but also best him in a physical confrontation, and it's not at all difficult to believe that Hardy's Bane is fully capable of taking down The Dark Knight.

Spending essentially the entire film (save for one brief flashback) behind a mask that covers his nose and mouth, Hardy overcomes this obstacle to deliver another fantastic performance relying on his voice, his eyes and his body language. Unfairly comparing Hardy's Bane to the late Heath Ledger's widely-renowned portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight, some critics and moviegoers were seemingly disappointed with the character, complaining that he lacked the Joker's charisma and humor and finding him difficult to understand due to the mask (his lines were redubbed after some initial screenings), but these complaints hold no water with me. The two characters are vastly different, as they should be, and Christopher Nolan knew exactly what he was doing when he cast Hardy, who once again vanishes into the character and earnestly portrays the larger-than-life Bane without once devolving into absurdity, which was a very real concern with this role. Bane is scary and intimidating because Hardy makes him that way.

I'm not the only one to have taken notice of Tom Hardy; his star has definitely been on the rise over the past several years, and if all goes well, he's poised to become a household name in the very near future. The Hollywood Reporter recently referred to him as a "New A-Lister" and one of "today's hottest stars." It certainly doesn't hurt that he's become a go-to-guy for Christopher Nolan, one of the most sought-after directors working today; his prominent roles in Nolan's Inception and TDKR, both of which have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars (TDKR is on track to break the billion dollar mark any day now), ensured that he was seen by legions of audiences worldwide, and if the two of them should happen to work together again, it will undoubtedly be yet another blockbuster. His Depression-era gangster epic Lawless opens this weekend, and his upcoming turn as the iconic character Max Rockatansky (the role that made Mel Gibson a star) in George Miller's reboot Mad Max: Fury Road will only raise his profile even higher. His success is well-earned and well-deserved, as he's got the talent to back it up, in spades. While the list of my favorite actors might be somewhat short, it should be pretty obvious who's at the top of it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Happy Birthday, Filmiliarity!

One year ago today, I made my first post on Filmiliarity. In the ensuing twelve months, I haven't written nearly as much as I would have liked, but nevertheless, this blog has been far more fruitful than the one it replaced, and I'm fairly proud of what I've accomplished so far. It's been very enjoyable for me, and I hope to keep at it for many more years. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Where's Jason?

Last month, I volunteered to take over reviewing the Friday the 13th films for Kevin Olson at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Kevin had reviewed the first four films as part of his Summer of Slash series before succumbing to what I can only call "Jason fatigue." I was looking for stuff to write about, and I figured I'd pick up where he left off and review the remaining six (!) films in the first series, in addition to the Nightmare on Elm Street crossover Freddy vs. Jason and the 2009 reboot. In retrospect, I have to ask myself, "What the hell was I thinking?" As you may have noticed, all I've delivered so far is a write-up on the fifth film, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. So where's the rest?

First of all, I made the decision to go back and watch the first four films myself. Rather than depending on Kevin's analysis, I wanted to have them fresh in my mind for context when viewing the later films. This was perhaps a mistake, as by the time I got to films five and six (the only other ones I've watched so far), I was developing my own case of "Jason fatigue." I haven't seen most of them in years, and while the earlier ones are still a lot of fun, they do get progressively worse as they go along. The idea of plowing through the rest seems a lot more daunting now than it did before I started. Additionally, Kevin recently drew his Summer of Slash series to a close, so it seems like Elvis may have already left the building at this point. (Blame me and my slow output.)

Finally, as I was trying to finish up my review of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, actor Ron Palillo (best known for portraying Horshack on the 1970s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter) passed away at the absurdly young age of 63. What does that have to do with Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives? Well, Palillo has a small role in the film's pre-credits sequence. He's funny and charming, and his role, while brief, is easily one of the best things about the movie; this being a Friday the 13th film, however, the scene culminates with his character's gruesome death, and it just seems kind of weird to me to highlight it right now.

Excuses, excuses, I know. The bottom line is, I do plan on completing this task at some point in the future, but rather than trying to get it all done before the summer's over, I'm going to spread it out. Between this and my abject failure to complete my proposed Summer of Sam series last year, I've learned my lesson. From now on, I'm not going to bite off more than I can chew.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Final Girl's Film Club - Deadly Blessing

(This post is part of the ongoing Film Club series over at Stacie Ponder's witty and hysterically funny blog, Final Girl. Stacie assigns a specific movie, and anyone who wishes to participate watches it and writes something about it. Be sure to follow the link and check out the other reviews...after you've read mine, of course. I've tried to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but it's so hard.)

Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper had similar beginnings to their careers as horror film directors. Both of them came to prominence in the 1970s, each with a pair of nasty, rural, independent horror films that would go on to become acknowledged genre classics (Craven gave us The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes while Hooper delivered The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the slightly more obscure Eaten Alive). Both subsequently made leaps into the mainstream in the 1980s with higher-profile major studio horror films, but while Hooper was taken under Steven Spielberg's wing to direct the effects-laden blockbuster Poltergeist, Craven's effort was the comparatively modest thriller Deadly Blessing. Released in 1981 by United Artists, Deadly Blessing slipped under the radar and ultimately became a minor footnote in Craven's celebrated career. Before undertaking this review, I hadn't seen it in years, and I only remembered brief snippets of it, chiefly Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) shouting "Incubus!" and two unforgettable scenes involving a spider and a snake, respectively.

Martha and Jim Schmidt (Maren Jensen and Douglas Barr) live on their isolated farm in uneasy proximity to the Hittites, an Amish-like religious sect. Jim had previously been a member of the sect but was banished by his father, Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), after going away to college and returning with Martha, whom he subsequently married. Jim's brother John (Jeff East) seems to wish he could join Jim in the secular world, much to Isaiah's consternation. Isaiah and the rest of the Hittites deride Martha, blaming her for corrupting Jim and referring to her as an "incubus." Louisa and Faith Stohler (Lois Nettleton and Lisa Hartman), a mother and daughter living nearby, are wary of the Hittites but have their own peculiarities. When Jim is killed in an mysterious "accident" involving their tractor, a heartbroken but steadfast Martha leans on her neighbors for support, as well as two old college friends, Vicky Anderson and Lana Marcus (Susan Buckner and a very young Sharon Stone), whom she summons to join her. Soon after Jim's funeral, more strange events occur. Lana has a terrifying experience in Martha's barn which foreshadows a disturbing dream sequence involving a spider, and Martha has a much-too-close encounter with a snake which an intruder has let loose in her bathroom while she's in the tub. Following a few more mysterious murders, the killer is revealed in a surprising twist which precipitates a climactic siege on the farmhouse. Just when you think everything's over, though, the film wraps up with a real head-scratcher of a final scene.

From its very beginning, Deadly Blessing has the feel of a made-for-TV movie - albeit one with amped-up sex and violence - a feeling that is reinforced by its cast, many of whom are familiar faces to TV watchers from the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Battlestar Galactica's Jensen and Knots Landing's Hartman. Other recognizable cast members include veteran actors Borgnine and Nettleton, along with East (Superman) and Buckner (Grease). Released in the midst of the slasher movie boom, that's essentially what it is, although it plays more like a drama for most of its running time and flirts with the supernatural on occasion (a flirtation which becomes an all-out ravishment at the film's conclusion). Craven had actually worked with one of the film's producers a few years prior on the TV movie Stranger in Our House (aka Summer of Fear - keep your eyes open for a somewhat meta reference to it in Deadly Blessing), so it's almost as if the aesthetic of their previous effort was carried through to this one. Nevertheless, the film is well-crafted and substantially more polished than Craven's earlier films, and it's obvious he's using the additional resources he's been given to make more of a "real" movie, as evidenced by the film's crane shots and sweeping vistas of its Texas countryside locations. The story and the characters draw you in, and after the one-two punch of The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Craven demonstrates that he can do more than just shock an audience into submission. The film's pastoral setting is visually pleasing as well.

Up until the film's conclusion, things are played relatively straight, and the hints of a possible supernatural force at work are extremely subtle; for instance, when Jim is killed, it seems as though the tractor could be moving on its own, but it's filmed in a way that leaves room for doubt. Then we come to the coda, one of the great WTF? moments in horror cinema. Without spoiling things, the film totally abandons any pretense of subtlety and hits its audience over the head with a nonsensical final scene that sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison to everything that's come before it. Logic is thrown out the window merely to provide the requisite shock ending that seems to have been a requirement of all horror films made during this era. Craven has said that the film's producers insisted on adding this scene, and he is on record as regretting having filmed it. There's no doubt that the film would have been better had it been left out.

The film is generally well-acted, with a few exceptions. The always professional Borgnine (RIP, Ernie) is utterly believable as Isaiah, the fanatical leader of the Hittites (not everyone thought so, as he was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actor for Deadly Blessing). Jensen impresses as well, coming off as vulnerable yet tough, even as she's asked to supply not one, not two but three nude scenes. (The preteen me had a ginormous crush on her when she was on Battlestar Galactica, but somehow her appearance in this film escaped me at the time, although I wouldn't have been allowed to see it anyway.) Future Oscar winner Stone, however, is living proof that practice makes perfect (to be fair, her performance does improve when her character starts to go off the deep end). East and Buckner acquit themselves well, especially when their characters take a (forbidden) shine to one another, and it's nice to see Berryman afforded a more complex (if also more brief) role than the one in his earlier collaboration with Craven.

Deadly Blessing is fairly restrained in terms of bloodletting, which was a change for Craven; the relative lack of explicit violence definitely adds to the TV movie feel. In addition to Sharon Stone's eight-legged nightmare in this film, Craven had previously included an unsettling dream sequence in The Last House on the Left; both scenes, of course, were precursors to his ultimate expression of bad dreams in A Nightmare on Elm Street just a few years later. The scene with the snake is perhaps one of the most terrifying things Craven has ever filmed, and it also foreshadows the creepy bathtub scene in Elm Street. Composer James Horner provides a superb score (one of his earliest) that nevertheless is strongly reminiscent at times of Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-winning score for The Omen; it enhances the feeling that something paranormal might be going on.

I began this review by contrasting Wes Craven with Tobe Hooper; although Hooper's mainstream success came earlier than Craven's, his career sadly fizzled out not long afterward. Craven, on the other hand, went on to become one of the most successful and celebrated directors in modern horror film history. Deadly Blessing, while not one of his most memorable offerings, is an entertaining film that holds up well and benefits greatly from his considerable craftsmanship along with some solid performances. Just don't hold the ending against him.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Michael goes to the movies

(The next Friday the 13th review is coming soon, I promise.)

In my very first post, nearly a year ago, I remarked how my wife's and my outings to an actual movie theater had dwindled to only a few per year at best. There were several factors that undoubtedly contributed to this theatrical malaise. Not to blame our daughter, but after she was born, it became more of an ordeal to go to the movies, what with having to arrange babysitting and all that. We still did manage to get out on special occasions (our first movie following her birth was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - nothing was gonna keep me from seeing that.) Then there were the dual frustrations of rising ticket prices and noisy patrons. Paying in the neighborhood of ten bucks per person to get into the theater only to have the movie spoiled by raucous audience members who seemed to be under the impression that they were sitting at home in their living room with their idiot buddies was a sure way to have an evening out spoiled.

It came as a bit of a surprise, therefore, to realize that our moviegoing has increased substantially this year. So far, this summer alone, we've seen:
  • The Avengers (a hell of a lot of fun)
  • Battleship (also a hell of a lot of fun)
  • Prometheus (probably my most anticipated summer movie)
  • Brave (OK, I didn't make it to this one, but my  wife and daughter did)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (in a beautiful, brand-new 35mm print - yes!)
  • A Clockwork Orange (Warner Brothers' stunning new digital restoration)
  • The Dark Knight Rises (because, fuck that guy)
I'm not exactly sure what the impetus behind this uptick in attendance has been. Perhaps it's the fact that out daughter is growing up and can see more of a variety of films with us (although she still opts out a great deal of the time). Perhaps it's the different venues we've been frequenting - whether they're local, independently-run repertory theaters like Portland's outstanding Hollywood Theatre or higher-end cinemas such as the local chain Cinetopia - where the audiences seem to be more respectful in general. Whatever the reason, I've been having a blast going to the movies lately, and I have no intention of stopping. As tragic as it was, I'm certainly not going to let the Aurora massacre prevent me from doing something I love. I'm eagerly anticipating a number of films coming up later this year, including ParaNorman (which a friend of mine worked on), the new James Bond opus Skyfall and, of course, The Hobbit. I say, bring 'em on.