Monthly Archives: February 2011

Oh, Isn’t That… Thomas Jane?

There’s a breed of actor that’s strangely recognizable by sheer dint of being a through- and-through jobbing actor. You might classify them as the more than competent character actor, others have an even simpler function as the rent-a-stock figure. Rarer still are the dashingly handsome not-quite-leading types, whose old-skool Hollywood good looks get them parts in the strangest films. For the casual film fan these actors represent a familiar but nameless presence (“oh, I know him, where do I know him from?”) For the obsessive follower of film (and increasingly TV as well) their appearance is like seeing an old acquaintance. The more you watch, the more rewarding the echo of recognition, irrespective of the feature itself. Match enough of these appearances with unheralded yet unexplainably brilliant films and you get a dangerously unquestioning devotion.

Which is to say, I absolutely love Thomas Jane and the frankly baffling films he’s been in.

He partly falls into the category of the chisel-jawed would-be leading man, having even had a crack at the BIGTIME twice, first with the shark-baiting shenanigans of Deep Blue Sea, and later with dangerously wonky yet flat comic-book adaptation The Punisher. But for his failure to launch in these hero driven action flicks, it’s in the role of the Average Joe thrust into extraordinary circumstance where Jane has really come to shine. The handsome everyman who in spite of his dashing looks is quite easy to relate to; a touch self effacing, a little world weary (but not resigned), and probably unshaven. Effortless in so far as he could not care less.

He pops up in a brilliant and rather broad range of bit parts and cameos: the bushy moustachioed drug dealing partner of Boogie Nights lead Eddie Adams; the high-fiveing officer of the Vegan police force in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; playing himself as a method acting tramp in Arrested Development; and perhaps best of all, a soldier at the end of Thin Red Line with a brief reflection on being left behind. Some might take the fact that Terence Malick cut scenes with Mickey Rourke, Adrien Brody, Martin Sheen, Billy Bob Thornton, Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman and Bill Pullman from the final cut, but left in Thomas Jane in for all of minute and a half as sign that there’s something special about the guy.

My first brush of surprise came with a mob of friends in a videostore, for reasons untold picking up the unassuming Thursday. Settled architect (Jane) is caught up by his drug-dealing/guns-blazing past, with a series of increasingly inexplicable characters appearing at the door of his suburban home. The film more than lives up to its risible blurb as a ‘post-Tarantino’ film, but for all its deficiency of imagination in regards snappy camera work and shuffled narrative, the twists in the pretty daft tale keeps bubbling along.

Jane’s role is the hub around which the whole film spins, the man trying, and failing to be a suburban nobody, deflecting the increasingly bizarre procession of callers that come throughout the course of the day. He’s matched by the suitably smarmy Aaron Eckhart as his wheeling and dealing partner of old, and the clash of the not-quite-leading-men makes this a surprisingly strong pairing. The film’s pretty garish at points, and the ending’s a complete cop-out, but a conveyor belt of recognisable faces (Mickey Rourke/James LeGros/Michael Jeter) lifts a uneven script. The film barely works as a whole, but by force of a baffling cast, some disjointed humour and fair dollop of misplaced passion it sort-of pulls it off.

The second Jane-related broadside came in the nigh forgotten Stander, the embellished story of a real-life South African police officer turned bank robber. I’m sure the first  time I noticed the film was in the queue at a supermarket, the floppy wig, big sunglasses, automatic weapon, and competitive price point (~£3) more than enough to catch my eye. Cost aside, the film is rather neatly summarised as being about a man dressing in silly get ups for increasingly brazen hold-ups. Set in 1970s South Africa, Andre Stander is the cop fed up with enforcing the cruel Apartheid rule of law, and recognising the stupefying goodwill shown by banks towards white folk, decides to exploit the system. What starts off as a nihilistic dare turns into a rather elaborate scheme, with a criminal crew, nationwide hunt, and constant misleading of his police colleagues.

The exposition of the righteous political motives behind Stander’s wreckless campaign aren’t the most robust, but Jane throws himself into the role with a dizzying level of eagerness. The accents are surprisingly solid, the dynamic between the criminal compatriots a nasty mix of best-buddies and fiery contention. The disguises used in the bank heists are almost as ludicrous as the 70s fashion on parade, and the small but tight action sequences are underscored by an absolutely thumping afrobeat score. It’s one of those films where the cast are having an absolute whale of a time, and thankfully that enjoyment is incredibly infectious. By dint of being a rather small indie action film it’s probably going to be forgotten at the bottom of the bargain basket, but honestly, dig it out wherever you can.

Finally a mention has to be made to The Mist, the Stephen King short story polished to perfection by Frank Darabont with a cast of actors each of whom could readily qualify in the category I tried defining in the opening paragraph. The approach of the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances is pretty much King through and through, but Darabont brings an edge of physical horror with some gorgeous b-movie Cold War/War-on-Terror undertones to the piece. Jane is a jobbing film poster artist living in a picturesque small town East coast USA, and following a particular bad storm gets stuck in an old fashioned supermarket with his son when the store gets swathed in an almost noxious looking mist. Panicked citizens rush in screaming of unfathomable horrors lurking in the gloom, the captured crowd stuck in two minds whether to venture out or not.

The film develops into a sort of one room drama, with die-cast characters bouncing off each other in paranoid delusion, in bickering drama, in all kinds of stupid powerplays for control of the group. Again Jane is the hub of the film, the unassuming hero that desperately doesn’t want to be leading things, but who will none the less step up in the moment of crisis. The kind of hero we flatter ourselves by relating to. There are set piece dramatic confrontations, real fireworks that play right to the strengths of a cast of character actors more used to the stage than the screen. Then the monsters actually start to appear, or at least poke a toe in, and then things get a little Jurassic towards the frankly spectacular final reel. To say its bleak would be a cruel understatement, but through the course of the film you get pulled emotionally in every direction, Jane standing as the anchor you’re left clinging to as the whole world collapses around him. Monster movies with grander subtexts rank very high on my list of odd subgenres, and this comfortably tops that list.

Sadly 2011 doesn’t hold much promise for the Thomas Jane acolyte. A rom-com starring Miley Cyrus, whose title is an explanation of what LOL means, followed by an independent project, I Melt With You, co-starring Sasha Grey (aka, the actress whose filmography is probably funnier than many a film you’ll see this year). There’s another season of Hung due on HBO, which should hopefully see Jane on run-down form as the unwitting Michigan gigolo, but that’s unlikely to set the world alight. Not that Thomas Jane ever will set the world alight, but I’m ok with that, and hopefully he is too.

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A Seagalian Sidestep: When Justin Met Steve

Say what you will about Channel ‘owned-by-a-porn-baron’ Five, but they’re doing a good job of showing some of Seagal’s worst films on a dizzying rotation of almost two a week. I guess someone must have joined the dots in their weekend schedule and thought that human-labrador Justin Lee Collins would make for interesting ratings if matched with the mighty Steven Seagal. And so we have the aptly search engine optimised ‘Steven Seagal v Justin Lee Collins’.

For all my eye-rolling at seeing the ads for this, the sum-total of the thing is not that bad. All things considered. Honestly. The duo worked together on the pretty tiresome Friday Night Project which Seagal hosted a couple of years ago, so they aren’t complete strangers. Nor do they have the unbounded rapport that Collins insists on pointing out to the camera before every advert break. But considering Seagal’s a lumbering sphinx with not a blind bit of reason to be talking to any kind of press, Collins does an alright job in keeping him talking, and surprisingly laughing, albeit at the expense of some pretty forced wank gags.

Despite being the sort of show which furiously chops up 25 minutes of footage and elliptically repeats itself across twice the runtime, the show does throw out a few odd facts, and a couple of quirks that were news to me:

Steven’s allergic to ‘a lot of things’. Specifically gluten.

Steven’s made a lot of money. Probably double what you’ve imagined.

He’s got a samurai sword worth ‘about a million dollars.’ It’s pretty cool looking.

He’s got an iphone.

The most memorable gig on his last UK tour was in Llandudno.

He can just about pronounce Llandudno.

He likes his guns.

This may stem from his latent fear of home invasion.

His new home is in the middle of nowhere.

He’s surprised that a Brit would know the phrase ‘young, dumb and full of cum’.

He once gave a drunk man a flying punch out of his Tokyo dojo.

He’s good at keeping his belly covered whenever he’s sat down.

Considering my expectations were rock bottom going in, I must say I was pretty pleasantly surprised. The show won’t be of any real interest to anyone that isn’t much of a fan, but Seagal fan’s and their inherently low expectations can find the programme streaming on Channel 5’s Demand 5 site until 02:00 on the 5th of August, 2011.

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Showing at the Showroom: Never Let Me Go

Die-hard romantic? It’s a lovely notion, but one I’d be hard pushed to apply to many films. The infinitely personal applied on a dizzying and sweeping scale? It’s not something that jumps to the fore in your average with a ROM prefix. Maybe I just need to do some more dredging through the classics (who doesn’t), maybe I just need to open up a bit more (again, who doesn’t), but it’s not often I get unwittingly caught up in the emotional tumult of other-people-who-happen-to-be-fictional. Full credit to Never Let Me Go then for absolutely broadsiding me.

At it’s emotional core the tale is one of unrequited love, which against better judgement I’m an absolute sucker for. I guess it’s not that hot on the Hollywood slate of rote narrative structures, as you inevitably can’t avoid misery for at least one, if not all of the characters. This isn’t the bog-standard love triangle, with it’s obvious guilt and the promise of some kind cathartic ‘action’ but rather the agonising, needling pain of what doesn’t happen, or worse still, what almost happens. The witheringly handsome trio of Knightley/Mulligan/Garfield manage the heavy-duty thesping that’s demanded of them, going from the sweet childhood flutters of love, up to the uncertain impasse of young adulthood. It’s all too easy to be sniffy about these BrightNewActors™ especially Her of Piratey Fame, but they all come into their own bringing these strange characters to life.

The strangeness comes from the soft science fiction situation of the story, which manages to take the stark alienation of an alternate world and cast it into scenes of discomfort readily familiar to the universal teenager. To take a separate (but well worth reading) parallel from Charles Burn’s comic Black Hole, the fantastical elements act as an obvious metaphor for the frustrations and confusion of being an average hormone-addled teenager. But obviously there’s more to it than that. It’s almost misleading to describe the film as science-fiction as it’s almost tertiary to the human drama. To exaggerate a tenant of good sci-fi, it’s greater empathy found in the alienation of circumstance. Romance has to build itself up on the bedrock of empathy, and heaven knows you have enough of that when you come around to the emotional crunch of this film.

Perhaps it’s because my teachers plied me with Petrarch at a dangerously hormonal age. Maybe I got dangerously empathetic to the story as I took a shining to Andrew Garfield’s wardrobe (it’s very nice in a futuro-rustic way), but it’s really the actors who bring the goods to what is a really superb story. More than a passing infatuation I like to think, but I can’t wait to see it again.

Five out of Five

Never Let Me Go is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 11th of February 2011.

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Not Seen at the Showroom: Brighton Rock (2010)

It’s all too easy to cry foul when an adaptation doesn’t match your lovely and elaborate memory of fictional scenes, but the new Brighton Rock did a spectacular job of setting off on the wrong foot. Having had the novel battered over my head by a terrifyingly Anglophilic Swedish English-teacher [yes, exactly that] one of the early scenes of the novel, in a small, dingy, absolutely despondent pub on a weekday lunchtime, for some reason struck a chord with my teenage self. There’d be mould on the walls, an air of resignation as thick as the smoke, and despite all this the brash yet unequivocally human character of Ida Arnold appears.

The opening of said scene in the film puts it in a gleaming palace of brass and porcelain, the sun streaming in, the patrons elegantly propping up the bar with poised noses. They’re still drinking gin, but for all I remember it may as well have been to the clinking of dry martinis. And then Helen Mirren opens her mouth and my vague reminisces of dialogue appear to have taken the form of an Eastenders audition tape. It’s hard not to get stuck on a hundred little hang-ups, but the whole thing just sat really badly.

And then the story starts to unfurl, and well, after a while I fell asleep. It was the middle of the day, I’d had a coffee before I went in, it wasn’t particularly warm in the cinema, but still I was out like a light for a good half hour. I’m not prone to cinematic snoozing unless under certain narcoleptic duress, but this certainly wasn’t one of those instances. Boredom might be the short word for it, but I just didn’t care about the characters, their motivations, anything. A complete failure to engage on nigh on every level.

I like to kid myself that while I snoozed I dreamt of alternative approaches to the film. Maybe one set in modern Brighton, or perhaps in a completely distinct criminal subculture. Or maybe abroad, a Polish Brighton Rock could be interesting, especially as the tale of an anguished lapsed Catholic has more resonance there. Just anything that had a spark of imagination with the source material would do. Anything but what we got in this film.

Fell Asleep out of Five

Brighton Rock has been showing at the Showroom in Sheffield from last Friday (the 4th of February  2010.)

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