Posts Tagged ‘Patricia Clarkson’

Where do I begin with Carol Morley’s Out of Blue? Let’s get that title out of way, to begin with. That is not one of typos to which all flesh is occasionally prey, as a quick glance at poster below will confirm: movie really is called Out of Blue. But why? It is based on a novel by Martin Amis, which was titled Night Train; just why Morley has decided on retitling of it is by no means clear (one of many things about this film which is fuzzy, to say least). What does Out of Blue even mean? I don’t know. Omission of definite article must be significant on some level: I wouldn’t mind adding a bit of significance to blog, which is why this particular piece will be an experiment in not including definite articles too (hopefully we won’t be required to discuss Matt Johnson’s well-known post-punk band, as that could get a bit tricky).

Basic plot of Out of Blue proceeds something like this: Patricia Clarkson is arguably cast somewhat against type as veteran New Orleans PD homicide detective Mike Hoolihan. Early in film she is assigned to a new case: body of a young female astronomer is found, dead from a gunshot wound. Her enquiries initially focus on dead woman’s colleagues, mainly Toby Jones and Aaron Tveit, but eventually move on to her family, a secretive and wealthy bunch led by patriarch James Caan and his wife Jacki Weaver. However, as investigation proceeds, Hoolihan discovers similarities with a series of unsolved killings committed by a serial killer decades earlier. Hoolihan finds herself becoming obsessed with discovering truth of case, even if it means having to grapple with her own personal demons.

When you distill it down like that, plot of Out of Blue sounds like that of fairly straightforward police procedural movie, and I suppose that on some level it operates as such. However, this is a very deep and well-concealed level, because no-one (I would imagine) is coming out of a screening of this film saying ‘Hmmm, that was a fairly straightforward police procedural movie’: critics are using words like incoherent and silly, and likening film to a clown car, while general audiences… I don’t know, but there were only three people at screening I attended, and I had to battle quite hard to stay focused on it; film is that unengaging.

As I say, film is based on Martin Amis’ novel Night Train, which I am not familiar with. Given that we have already discussed hereabouts dismal nature of certain elements of Amis’ career as originator of genre movies, my natural inclination would be to blame him – but on this occasion it seems that master of absurd grotesqueness is off hook, as his novel has been very freely adapted for silver screen. There seem to be some vague similarities of plot and theme, but also some very significant differences on many levels, particularly when it comes to serial killer storyline (wholly new, as far as my very limited research can discern).

So Carol Morley is clearly up to something beyond simply adapting Amis, problem is trying to figure out what this is. Obviously on one level film is trying to work as a piece of genre cinema, adopting familiar form of a very slightly noir-ish police procedural detective story – there are various suspects, and odd twists, and revelations, and  so on. Then again, there are also signs of it attempting to function as a kind of character piece: Clarkson is giving a very intense central performance and she’s in virtually every scene. Finally, there is way film appears to be grasping for some kind of profundity or resonance by exploring deep metaphysical and philosophical themes. There are various allusions to astronomy and astrophysics, and scenes where characters sit around having po-faced discussions about Schroedinger’s cat (at one point they even put a cat in a box as a kind of visual aid for the hard-of-thinking, just in case any of audience couldn’t quite grasp concept).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this in principle – when this sort of idea is executed correctly, it can give heft to an otherwise lightweight genre film and provide big ideas with a way of reaching a mainstream audience. Problem is that Out of Blue fluffs police procedural aspect so badly that deep thoughts about nature of universe just feel incongruous – and, to be honest, hopelessly pretentious. Or, to put it another way, thriller angle is handled in such a clumsily mannered way that it provides no comforting context for more outre aspects of the movie to embed themselves in. You do almost wonder if there is an element of send-up going on here, so hackneyed is background given to Clarkson’s character – she’s a dedicated, brilliant cop with a history of psychological troubles and a drink problem, and so on, but film is almost totally lacking in humour or warmth. Patricia Clarkson is a fine actress, but she seems all at sea here, the script requiring her to do some fairly ridiculous things before story concludes.

In a way I am almost reminded of Paul Anderson’s Inherent Vice, another peculiar crime thriller with a notably impossible-to-follow storyline. There is a school of thought that actual plot of Inherent Vice is secondary to it giving you experience of what it feels like to be high on drugs: you just sort of drift mellowly from moment to moment as things occur in front of you. In a similar way, I suppose that Out of Blue would make much more sense if it was actually intended to make share experiences of someone undergoing a psychological breakdown – nothing seems to make sense, things seem to occur for no particular motivation, and so on. Alas, I have seen nothing to suggest this is actually case, but film certainly seemed to be giving me sense that I was drifting in and out of consciousness (of course, there is always the possibility that I genuinely was drifting in and out of consciousness – one should never rule this out at a matinee in the middle of a heavy week).

Very seldom does an English-language movie, especially a genre movie, fail to connect with me quite as completely as Out of Blue did, but I do note that Mark Kermode has seen it three times and found something new to enjoy on each occasion, while film’s publicists have managed to find people apparently willing to describe the film as ‘dazzling’, ‘thrilling’, and ‘mesmerising’ – although I note they are picking single words and using them out of context. Only one of those I would even come close to agreeing with is last one, and this is one trance I was very happy to wake up from.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 16th September 2004:

And so to another long-overdue visit to the House known as Art. I tell you, folks, when you watch as many films as I do you’re sometimes in danger of forgetting just why you go in the first place – in other words, of forgetting just how magical an experience seeing a well-made film on the big screen can be. I received the best reminder possibly recently when I caught an art-house showing of Tom McCarthy’s wonderful The Station Agent.

This movie is built around a magnificent performance by Peter Dinklage as Fin, a man with a single abiding obsession: he loves trains and railways. He works in a model train store, watches the local line from the roof of his apartment building and, in the evening, goes to meetings where he and kindred spirits watch films of trains. He is basically what we here in the UK would call a trainspotter. Fin wouldn’t mind if he was only labelled that way, because the bane of his life is that he is only four-foot-six tall. A lifetime of being stared at in the supermarket and shouted at in the streets by children has made him rather cool towards other people and when his best friend and employer dies, leaving him a disused railway station in the wilds of New Jersey in his will, Fin is only too happy to decamp to the countryside and – he hopes – peace and quiet.

But things don’t work out quite like that as a series of random events lead to Fin getting to know Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a local artist. Their relationship is misinterpreted by boisterous local ice cream man Joe (Bobby Cannavale), who instantly concludes that Fin is some sort of playboy superstud and sets out to make friends with him. Rather unexpectedly, Fin finds himself putting aside his studied reserve and starting to enjoy the company of other people…

Well, The Station Agent isn’t exactly overflowing with plot, the closest thing it has to a big name is Patricia Clarkson, and the biggest action sequence in the movie depicts a low-speed chase where Joe’s ice cream van pursues a train so Fin can rather inexpertly film it with a camcorder. But it’s a movie that absolutely oozes charm and warmth. Most of the movie is just about these three very different people hanging out together and getting to know each other, and it’s just beautifully written and performed, and utterly believeable.

Dinklage is brilliant: Fin could have been too cold and aloof to hold the audience’s sympathy, or too cutesy to retain any integrity, but Dinklage’s restrained, deadpan performance is both dignified, funny, and – as the film goes on – deeply moving. If the film has anything to say, it’s that dwarfs are people too, and this is a lesson that both Fin and the people he meets have to learn. Too often little people in the cinema get stuck playing comic relief, or aliens, or both, but Peter Dinklage is a genuinely great actor and hopefully he’ll be able to get some decent roles off the back of this (although as his next couple of movies are apparently entitled The Dwarf and Little Fugitive, this may be a vain hope). His brooding good looks and gravelly voice may also make him the first bona fide dwarf sex-symbol.

But all the performances are good, the writing is amusing without seeming forcedly so, and the gradual shifts in the tone of the film are virtually seamless. As I say, not a huge amount happens and the end of the film seems a bit abrupt. Towards the end McCarthy clearly feels the need to add a little plot and conflict, which isn’t as successful as the more atmospheric earlier sections, and there’s a very slight lack of subtlety and coherence in these closing stages. Apart from, this, though, The Station Agent is a gem, the best film I’ve seen in a very long time. Seek it out; you won’t be disappointed.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 20th 2003:

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the elder statesmen of cinema – both film-makers and critics – regularly bewail the medium for losing its intelligence and sophistication, and becoming obsessed with big opening weekends and happy meal promotions. (Although it is perhaps telling that the ‘sometimes’ in question tend to be early Autumn and early Spring, well away from the blockbuster seasons but just about the times that the major awards are either beginning to prey on producers’ minds or about to be announced.) For example, for the second week running we have a film opening in the UK that is a work of the utmost skill and subtlety (and, for that matter, is in part produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s Section Eight company).

The film in question is Todd Haynes’ remarkable Far From Heaven, a tribute to the 50s films of Douglas Sirk. A man has to know his limitations, and I must confess that while I consider my expertise in the fields of Toho Studio’s kaiju eiga and the works of David Cronenberg to be entirely adequate, my knowledge of Sirk and his films is limited to what I picked up second-hand from reading interviews with Quentin Tarantino. But this isn’t an exercise in spotting the influences, with bonus points being scored for getting all the in-jokes – quite the opposite, in fact.

Julianne Moore plays Kathy Whittaker, a housewife in Cincinatti in the late 1950s. She seems to have it all: a happy marriage to successful executive Frank (Dennis Quaid), a home with all mod cons, and two charming children. But beneath this cheery surface all is not well – for Kathy stumbles upon Frank in a clinch with another man. This revelation, and Frank’s ‘treatment’ for his homosexuality, places a tremendous strain upon their marriage and Kathy finds herself turning to her African-American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) for solace, not quite realising the scandal this will cause amongst the ghastly daiquiri-swilling harpies who are her friends…

Well, it sounds like a fairly over-ripe melodrama, doesn’t it? And to some extent it is. But what’s so unusual about this film is not the story, but the way in which it’s told. Haynes has opted for a style of storytelling which recreates not just the 1950s but also the films of that period – the colours are bright and luminous almost to the point of garishness, Elmer Bernstein’s score is lush and passionate, even the graphic design is a perfect imitation. In many ways Far From Heaven resembles Pleasantville in its recreation of wholesome, slightly camp suburban Americana – Quaid doesn’t shout ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’ when he appears, but you wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

But the most striking thing about Far From Heaven is the way in which it crucially differs from films like Pleasantville, which pastiched this idealised nostalgia. Haynes isn’t parodying Sirk, or holding the genre up to ridicule, or using the 50s setting to make ironic points about the state of America today. There’s nothing here that winks at the audience, nothing to suggest that this isn’t how all films look and sound today. Haynes takes his story and characters seriously and plays the film wholly straight all the way through.

And the results are, as I said, remarkable. The danger of any film with this kind of over-stylised setting is that the audience may find it difficult to get involved with the characters – a problem I had with Moulin Rouge, for example. But that’s not the case here – this story is one of the most moving I’ve seen on the big screen for some time. As anyone who’s seen Jurassic Park 2 will testify, Julianne Moore is one of America’s finest actors and she is very good here, in a role utterly dependent on the subtlety and nuances of her performance. But, arguably, Dennis Quaid is equally good, if not better – it’s almost certainly the best performance of his career so far. 24‘s legion of fans will already be aware of the integrity, decency and nobility which Dennis Haysbert routinely brings to a role, and they’re all much in evidence here.

In fact the only criticism I would make of Far From Heaven is an entirely personal one. The style of this film is very distinctive and very different and my first instinct on seeing something like this is to try and figure out why the director’s done it, what he’s trying to say, and what the significance of it is. But so perfect and committed is the adoption of the style that it’s difficult to see that it’s anything other than an expression of Haynes’ own affection for this kind of film, and all my ruminations that it allows him to make a more emotional film than would be credible in a more modern style, or that the racial and sexual elements of the story work better in this milieu, are probably not much more than me outsmarting myself. I spent most of the film trying to anticipate what the punchline was going to be, and the eventual total absence of one was a little disconcerting. This shouldn’t be a concern of yours, of course – the fact that Far From Heaven is an impeccably made and involving drama should.

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