Sunday 22 February 2009

Glasgow Film Festival Review

The fifth Glasgow Film Festival drew to a close tonight with the UK premiere of Last Chance Harvey, starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, and I can honestly say that the Festival’s 11 days have been an unqualified success. Despite growing significantly in reputation and importance in the last 12 months, the Festival has stayed true to it’s unpretentious and audience-friendly beginnings, and thanks to expert guidance from co-directors Allan Hunter and Allison Gardner GFF is now surely established in the UK’s cinema calendar.

I managed to catch quite a few films through the week; here’s a round-up of those that I would recommend looking out for. Top of the pile is Eternal Sunshine writer Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York (pictured), starring the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman and some of the best actresses working today including Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener and Emily Watson. The story is Kaufman’s most ambitious yet, and is packed with so many ideas about art, death and self-centredness that I think at least one repeat viewing will be necessary. Also really enjoyable is Fermat’s Room, a Spanish thriller about a group of mathematicians who are invited to a mysterious gathering and find themselves imprisoned in a room whose walls are closing in, and the only way they can put off being crushed is by solving consecutive logic puzzles! If it sounds a bit silly, it is, but I found it gripping and very well written, tightly plotted with a satisfying explanation at the end of it all.

In a totally different vein is Song of Sparrows, an Iranian film that follows proud husband and father Karim as he loses his job as an ostrich farmer and is forced to go in search of new work. The film’s easy pace and light tone belie the important and universal themes under its surface; Song of Sparrows is life-affirming in the very best way. Second World War dramas continue to prove popular, and there was no shortage at the Festival with Viggo ‘Aragorn’ Mortensen in Good (well-titled) and Mads ‘Bond Baddie’ Mikkelsen in Danish resistance thriller Flame & Citron (better than Good). I also really liked Flash of Genius, a true-life story featuring a great performance from Greg Kinnear as an inventor done out of earnings he deserves by the American car industry. It’s a heartening story of individual triumph against the corporate machine, well played by all involved.

The Festival also ran a hugely popular retrospective of Audrey Hepburn films, and in amongst the favourites I managed to catch one of her forgotten films, The Children’s Hour, a serious drama from 1961 starring Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as teachers in a girls’ school who are scandalously accused of being lovers. It’s a very good little film with both actresses on top form and excellent support from James Garner.

As well as all this there were some great parties, an uncommonly good series of Short Film programmes from The Magic Lantern, and a genuinely surprising Surprise Film (O’Horten, an odd but lovely film from Norwegian director Bent Hamer). All in all it was a worthy successor to last year’s Festival, and judging by the packed audiences and positive atmosphere I can only imagine next year will be even better. Needless to say, you should be there.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Interview: Richard Jenkins on The Visitor

Richard Jenkins has had a fantastic 12 months, earning the biggest recognition so far in a long career for his great performance in Tom McCarthy’s film The Visitor. In the film he plays Walter Vale, a lonely academic who, through a strange set of coincidences, finds himself sharing his apartment with two Sudanese refugees. Fantastically, he’s nominated for Best Male Lead in next weekend’s Academy Awards, and I had a brief chance to talk to him about the role when he was in Scotland for the Edinburgh Film Festival last year:

The Visitor could be seen as a movie about asylum seekers - an ‘issue movie’ - but it’s really about people, isn’t it?
I never saw it as an issue movie, and Tom didn’t either. That’s not what’s interesting, and there’s a lot of movies like that. But if we get involved with someone’s life then we can see the effect something has on their life and that’s what he did so brilliantly with the movie I think. It’s like he put a face on the issue. It’s a relationship movie, and this just happened to be part of it. You do take it with you but it’s not the main thing you take away with you; you go away wondering what happens to these people.

What do you think happens to the characters?
I don’t know. It’s a question we get asked every time and it means that you care about these people, but until they make a sequel, I don’t know! I’ve had people say “I know what happens! He goes to Syria and he brings her… is that what happens?” and I’m like, “I don’t know! The movie ended!” But it’s so great to have people investing in those characters. And then some people say they don’t like the way it ended, but that’s life and that’s the way it happens. If the movie had been given a Hollywood ending I think it would have been much less effective.

Have you kept up playing the djembe since learning for the movie?
No. I played drums when I was young. I played for about five years when I was in Junior high. I quit when I was about 14, I wasn’t very good. But it helped me in this movie!

Walter goes through a lot of change in the course of the movie, but it’s all happening inside. How did you prepare and get confident that your performance could speak louder than words?
We had two weeks of wonderful rehearsal; we talked about the script, and read the script, and changed the script. But the truth is, you don’t really know what I’m thinking, but by the end of the movie you understand this man. Because I was thinking of a million things, and I wasn’t even sure what I was thinking at the time. But what I tried to do was just live this life and trust that an audience would understand what’s going on in this guy, without having everything spelled out for them saying “now I’m happy, now I’m sad” because I wasn’t sure half the time what I was feeling. Conflicted many times!

So it was Tom who said I had to trust the camera and that the audience would understand it. The thing is, people connect with other human beings and it’s a subconscious thing, it’s an emotional connection. We’ve all been in movies where everything is explained to us and we understand it, but it doesn’t mean anything to us. It’s that thing of wondering what’s going to happen next. Who is this guy? Who are these people? What is she really like? For me when I watch a movie that’s what I love, and that’s what you love about the great ones. I just saw Eastern Promises where Viggo Mortensen gives an extraordinary performance. I didn’t know what the hell was going on in his head, but I tell you something, by the end of the movie I understood that guy. I couldn’t take my eyes off him!

Will the great response to The Visitor affect roles that are available to you?
It’s kind of a gradual thing if it does. I’m 61. I don’t know how much of an effect it can have on me, and that’s not for me to speculate on. I try not to think about that because it just hurts your feelings in the end anyway.

I hope that Richard isn’t experiencing too many hurt feelings at the moment, but I think it’s unlikely, given his upcoming work includes a part in Joss Whedon’s latest, Cabin in the Woods, and his Oscar nomination will doubtless bring him to a much wider audience. The Visitor is released on dvd in the UK on 23rd February. I promise this is the last time I’ll go on about it, just make sure you check it out!

Thursday 5 February 2009

Oscars 2009: My best actor pick

It’s a good year for acting at the Oscars. While the Best Picture category is disappointing in its safe choices – unforgivably ignoring both Wall-E and The Dark Knight - the acting categories tell a better story. In the Leading Actor category it’s particularly heartening to see Richard Jenkins’ perfectly understated performance in The Visitor getting the recognition it deserves; hopefully the nomination will cause a wider UK audience to seek the film out when it’s released on dvd (the day after the Oscars, conveniently!).

But good as Jenkins is, I think the category really comes down to a battle between Sean Penn in Milk and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Concerning the other two nominees, Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button turn is nothing special, and his nomination is just one more aspect of the general overrating of this mediocre film. Frank Langella, on the other hand, fully deserves to be in there, as his portrayal of Nixon in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon is excellent. But good as he is, I was always aware that I was watching Langella acting, as opposed to being drawn in to the reality of the character, so I don’t think he should win.

So who should take home the prize out of Penn and Rourke? Penn’s Harvey Milk is a wonderfully inspiring creation, all the more worthy of praise for how it stretches the actor out of his generally sombre comfort zone. But as Highlander taught us, there can only be one winner, and I think it’s got to be Mickey Rourke for his heartbreaking performance as Randy ‘the Ram’ Robinson. If great acting is about completely inhabiting a character to the point where all an audience can see is a fully formed life played out on-screen, then Rourke in The Wrestler deserves to be ranked with the best.