Talking Movies

April 23, 2010

Who the Hell is … Mark Strong?

This second in a series of occasional features celebrating character actors who deserve more attention focuses on the current blockbuster villain of choice Mark Strong.

I first noticed Mark Strong when he starred as an East End Jewish gangster in 1960s London in the BBC 2 four-parter The Long Firm. After that he had minor film roles as the torturer who pulls out George Clooney’s fingernails in Syriana and as the crazed Russian cosmonaut trying to destroy humanity in Sunshine. Matthew Vaughn gave him a more substantial film part in Stardust as the surprisingly bloodthirsty villain of the fairytale who continues to duel even after his death, in a show-stopping piece of mechanical special effects. At this point Strong became a fine actor who should be getting better parts, like Linus Roache in The Chronicles of Riddick, with a minor role in another Vin Diesel mess Babylon AD. Thankfully that didn’t derail him and Vaughn’s old collaborator Guy Ritchie gave him a high profile gig in Sherlock Holmes as the evil revenant Lord Blackwood. Vaughn cast Strong again in his next movie, the outrageous Mark Millar comic-book flick Kick-Ass, as Frank D’Amico the crime-lord driven to distraction by amateur superheroes ruining his business. Vaughn has now been joined in praising Strong by Ian McKellen who called him the greatest actor in England at the present moment.

Strong, like Ben Kingsley, possesses features which casting agents deem capable of portraying a span of nationalities from Jewish to Syrian, via English and Italian. But he can do this without it seeming insulting because of his chameleon like ability to change for each role – a complete lack of vanity which saw him buried under fright make-up and shot out of focus for his appearance in Sunshine, or, as Vaughn raved to me in a 2007 interview for Stardust, to go limp like a rag-doll, be wired up to a rig overhead, and be physically puppeteered for a swordfight as a magically animated corpse. So, now that you know who Mark Strong is look out for him as The Lord Villain (not the actual character name but accurate) in Robin Hood, and as Sinestro, the renegade alien Lantern, in 2011’s long-in-development Green Lantern. Geoff Johns has been masterminding a resurgence in the comics title of late and an unreliable appraisal of the screenplay last year suggested that this was going to be the real deal. The casting of Strong along with Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern and Blake Lively as Carol Ferris certainly bodes well for a movie as romantic, thrilling and sweeping as Johns has made the comics.

It would be a great pity if Strong was reduced to playing villains for the rest of his career but for the moment let’s just enjoy an unsung actor having his star ascend by sheer talent and hard work.

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April 16, 2010

Who the Hell is … Kevin Durand?

In this, the first of a series of occasional features, I’m going to celebrate a character actor who I always cheer when I see hove into view.

Kevin Durand is a Canadian stand-up comedian turned actor who has been consistently thwarted by his own physique. Durand first came to my attention as Joshua in season 2 of James Cameron’s Dark Angel. Joshua was the original genetic experiment by the shadowy genetic scientist Sandeman who founded military program Manticore to create super-soldiers after putting a bit too much canine DNA in the mix for Joshua. Buried under layers of prosthetics and make-up Durand gave a fine performance as the hulking dog-faced man, mixing humour with tragic nobility, that helped raised the show’s game considerably after its misfiring first run. After this turn though Durand’s great height, 6’6″, started to get in the way of his natural comedic talents. In a world of leading ladies like Kristen Bell (5’1″), Hayden Panettiere (5’1″), and Ellen Page (5’1″), you can see how it might be just a bit of a problem in getting leading man roles in romantic comedies…

He floated through half of America’s TV shows in one-shot guest roles, notably as a terrifying psychopath in a very chilling episode of The Dead Zone, before a far bigger role in season 4 of LOST as the psychopathic leader of the mercenaries dispatched to the island to kidnap Ben, and then returned as a slightly more rounded version of the same villain in the frankly ridiculous parallel universe used as filler for season 6 of LOST. This of course led to a higher profile and an appearance in Wolverine followed, as the Blob. Sadly no one either noticed or could win the argument over relative star billings that Durand rather than the miscast Liev Schreiber was the natural choice to play Wolverine’s half-brother Sabretooth. His role as the Blob though was perhaps the best use anyone had made of his uniquely endearing mix of comedic timing and imposing physique since Dark Angel. It was certainly more rounded than his thugs in 3:10 to Yuma, Smokin’ Aces, The Butterfly Effect, or his vengeful archangel in Supernatural knock-off Legion. Thankfully, and probably courtesy of his Yuma gang-leader Russell Crowe, he’s essaying a rare good guy role in Robin Hood next month, he is of course playing Little John…

Can Durand overcome his own physique and escape from the pigeonhole of one-note psychos or insanely script-specific good guy parts? Here’s hoping that Robin Hood marks the beginning of more varied and high-profile roles for the man who should be the next Donald Sutherland, sharing as they do an ungainly height, a goofy grin, and a flair for playing villainy, comedy and pathos equally well. Oh, and did I mention he’s Canadian too?

December 22, 2009

(Public) Enemies Foreign and Domestic

Well, it’s not every year Hollywood and France go head to head – in this case with big brassily confident biopics of real-life criminals adulated by the media who specialised in audacious bank-heists – only for everyone to conclude that Hollywood’s version lacked the infectious sense of fun that marked the French take…

Michael Mann isn’t noted for his sense of humour but humour isn’t necessary if you’re presenting compelling drama, however if people are bored they’ll always astringently note, ‘this is a humourless bore’. Mesrine is far funnier than Public Enemies and crucially Mesrine obviously enjoys robbing banks, there is an utter fecklessness to the Quebec double hold-up when, having gone to great lengths to establish that they have 30 seconds before they get shot dead by the police, his Quebecois partner suggests hitting the bank across the street and Mesrine agrees. By contrast Dillinger’s bank-raids are presented as an efficient piece of craftwork…

This sense of efficiency bedevils Mann’s film – everything you expect from a gangster film is present and correct but there is little attempt to delve beneath the surface. Public Enemies lacks context. The great unaddressed topic of the film is the FBI, the scene with Hoover being grilled in a Senate hearing promised much as an intriguing sub-plot about the legal and political machinations involved in the rise of the Bureau but that storyline is never developed beyond the fascinating reaction of the Mob to the implications of the federal legal response to Dillinger’s cross-state crime-sprees for their own continental business. Mann’s epic drops us into Dillinger’s career just months from its end whereas two films take us through Mesrine’s entire life giving us clear motivation where Mann only half-suggests that, like the anti-heroes in Breach or Jesse James, Dillinger yearns to be punished. The concluding text suggests a Ford/James bond between Melvin Purvis and Dillinger but Christian Bale is not given the screen-time necessary to register this and in any case Bale and Depp are both woefully blank for the majority of their performances, only occasionally emoting ‘driven’ and ‘roguish’ respectively.

Public Enemies also suffers from a deeply cavalier approach to fleshing out supporting characters. If you knew who David Wenham was for certain in less than an hour then you’re a better man than me Gunga Din. Mesrine is of course more sexual than Public Enemies but that shouldn’t necessarily be so given that Dillinger’s moll is French star Marion Cotillard, however, she is rendered as anaemic as a long line of French actresses have been by Hollywood. It’s at this point that you note that Mesrine has its cake and eats it with its introduction of Cecile de France’s Jeanne Schneider as the Bonnie to Mesrine’s Clyde being reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and superbly subversive of the type of hyper-sexual introduction we expect, which Ludivine Sagnier’s moll Sylvie then receives…

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is dizzying geographically as it takes us from France to Quebec via Algeria and Spain in a series of acutely observed vignettes. This is mirrored in Mesrine’s interior journey from reluctant soldier encouraged to torture and kill by his superiors in the battle against Algeria’s independence movement, to demobbed man who dabbles in crime, before we see him morph convincingly and touchingly to family man who gets an honest job and obviously enjoys his work before being laid off and so turning inexorably to a life of crime. It is this sense that Mesrine was forced by circumstance, including government sanctioned brutality, to criminality that makes him a much more empathetic character than Dillinger. The lack of true motivation for Dillinger is a problem made worse by Depp’s mixture of boredom and insouciance in the heists which defeats the intended reading that Dillinger robs for kicks. Crime becomes a dangerous drug for Mesrine as it feeds his ego and his recklessness which become more monstrous until he simply burns through criminal partners and women who tire of his machismo. Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 does very well what only a few scenes in Public Enemies hint at – the growing distance between Robin Hood and bank-robber, even as their need to justify their crimes as revolutionary anti-capitalism or the common man striking back becomes more obsessive.

Mann’s new digital shooting style deglamorises by removing the sheen we expect from film. Mesrine by contrast opts for a very filmic sheen and, as well as 1970s split-screens, a number of dazzlingly ornate camera movements such as the spinning away sequence in solitary confinement in Quebec and the extravagant car-mounted camera for the spectacular car-crash shot in Paris. Mann’s down and dirty digital style renders the savage gun-battles with thundering immediacy, and impressively makes them feel totally different to his own previous personal best Heat’s epic shoot-out on the streets of LA, but ‘authenticity’ is not always desirable – too often it feels like it was shot in Mann’s back-yard with a camcorder while Mesrine was shot on soundstages and locations with heinously expensive equipment.

Mesrine is almost a Hollywood production filtered through a French sensibility, full of bravura film-making. Public Enemies in its more suspenseful sequences of surveillance and engagement matches it, but Mann’s emphasis on gritty 1930s visuals rather than his characters or his history mean that while both films are flawed Mesrine’s melding of influences is more interesting and successful, and in the end it is just more fun…and that was unexpected.

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