Category Archives: Characters that I love

Characters I Love #11 – Kate Winslet as Clementine – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a rare gem of the romance genre. On paper, its plot sounds maddeningly complex – Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) appear to be embarking upon a new relationship, only to find out that they are ex-lovers who both recently underwent procedures to have each other erased from their memories. If, like me, you watched this film after emerging from a long-term relationship, it feels refreshingly realistic. Haven’t we all wished we could erase painful memories from a failed relationship, but have to accept that the bad came with loads of good? It’s a basic idea, delivered in an innovative way.

As if the mind-erasing alone wasn’t challenging enough, the bulk of the film actually takes place in Joel’s mind, where we see his memories of Clem being erased in reverse chronological order. Before long, Joel’s consciousness recalls their happy memories together, decides he wants to stop the erasing process, and tries to hide Clem in the recesses of his brain. Oh, and their original relationship’s rewound story is framed by post-erasure Joel and Clem trying to figure out if they should give it a(nother) go. Talk about high-concept. Although it sounds heavy-going, the action flows quite sensibly and doesn’t distract from the development of the characters’ nuanced psychological portraits. Charlie Kaufman’s pithy screenplay combined with Michel Gondry’s sensitive vision creates an accessibly profound portrayal of a tumultuous relationship and its aftermath.

Eternal Sunshine relies on its female romantic lead to provide its spark, and Kate Winslet’s Clementine does not disappoint. She’s a scene-stealer, playing against type as a Jim-Carrey-esque character opposite the man himself. Clem is an inspiringly quirky and energetic girl, not unlike familiar characters such as Zooey Deschanel’s Summer (500 Days of Summer) or Natalie Portman’s Sam (Garden State) – but she manages to transcend the stock character type.

While Clem’s alluring and sexy, she’s also aggressive in a candid way; when Joel cuts a conversation short, she punches him hard in the arm in a mock-friendly gesture, out of frustration. Credit goes to Winslet for that – the punch wasn’t in the script. Clem is confident yet aware of her limitations; yes, she dyes her hair wacky colours, but she self-deprecatingly comments: “I apply my personality in a paste.” Her painful self-awareness adds a compelling darker side to her quirky appeal – we see her spike her midday diner cup of coffee with alcohol from a flask, openly self-medicating. Winslet doesn’t allow Clem’s antics to become cartoonish – her restless, demanding energy clearly masks her vulnerability and deep-seated insecurity.

To the film’s credit, Clementine’s candidly self-aware presentation is partly possible because half the time, she is a construction, a manifestation of Joel’s consciousness while they try to outrun the memory-erasers. This allows a reflexive level of commentary not usually credible in films. Clem can say things like, “you know me, I’m impulsive” and it doesn’t sound artificial. It’s a nifty structural device – in novels, characters can self-reflect through third-person narration or interior monologues, but in films, the usual option is breaking the fourth wall. Kaufman’s screenplay innovatively circumvents this.

In comparison to other onscreen female romantic leads, Kate Winslet’s Clementine stands apart by insisting on not being idealized. As James Brown sang, it’s a man’s world. So it’s not unexpected that so many films feature some guy’s fantasy of a woman – a sexy, mysteriously appealing object of affection put up on a pedestal – rather than anything approaching the real thing. Men – in the films as well as the audiences – end up falling in love with the idea of the girl instead of the girl herself; a mildly irritating situation for the girls in the audience, because it happens in real life all too often. But Clem’s pre-dating spiel is: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” Finally, an upfront rejection of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl myth! No mystery, no pedestal – just an independent, vibrant, openly flawed woman doing her best. I just wish we saw more female characters like this on screen.

 

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Characters that I love #9 and #10 – Jim Brown as Montezuma Monroe and Lawrence Taylor as Shark – Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone, 1999)

Lawrence Taylor as Shark

I’ve always had a lot of time for Oliver Stone’s mid-late nineties output, especially the batshit crazy, MTV-gone-wrong trilogy of Natural Born Killers, U-Turn and Any Given Sunday. The latter was on TV recently and I was once again hypnotised by its kinetic flow of testosterone, epileptic jump-cuts and highly random soundtrack selection. I am well aware of Any Given Sunday’s multiple limitations: an undeniable misogyny (well, it’s an Oliver Stone film after all, a guy so obsessed with representations of dick-waving virility that he makes Hemingway’s oeuvre self-consciously metrosexual by comparison), a potentially objectionable revisionist nostalgia (“the game was pure back in the days, ra ra ra”) and the usual, unchallenged brothers-in-arms apology; but the staggering, relentless energy of the piece leaves you reeling and breathless at the end, as if you’d just played the last quarter, counting your bruises under the cold shower. I can’t think of many films that are viscerally this much fun, and for once, I have to agree with Mark Kermode who put it perfectly at the time in Sight & Sound: “Any Given Sunday may fall on its face a few times during the game, but wouldn’t you rather watch a team going recklessly for the touchdown than playing safely for time?” Besides, this was probably Al Pacino’s last hurrah, whose inches speech (that I always found more demoralising than inspiring honestly, especially compared to this) has now firmly secured cult-status.

Undeniably, despite a couple of narrative shortcuts hurting the reality effect – yes, Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) landing the cover of Sports Illustrated and suddenly having his face plastered on every bus in Miami after only three games is a bit much – Any Given Sunday is at its most convincing when portraying the players in all their flaws and glories behind the scenes, from fame-craving up-and-comers to coke-snorting washed-up stars and dressing room psychos. I personally always loved the white-trash, Metallica-loving “Madman” Kelly who throws his baby alligator pet in the showers to settle a rap versus heavy metal battle.

Out of the plethoric and star-studded cast of secondary characters  – all excellent, from the medic duo of innocent intern Matthew Modine and evil materialist silverfox James Woods to LL Cool J as a delusional aging player (admittedly not much of a stretch if you draw the obvious parallel with his music career) – two figures always stood out of the pack of mighty beefcakes for me: Montezuma Monroe and Lawrence “Shark” Lavay: the intense defensive coach and the ailing franchise star. Both are played by two absolute legends of America’s favourite sport, respectively Jim Brown (one of the best men to ever play the game) and Lawrence  “L.T.” Taylor, the leader of the New York Giant’s Big Blue Wrecking Crew in the late eighties, an emblematic hard-hitting linebacker equally notorious for his ruthless tackles as for his off-field antics (rape allegations, drugs, prostitutes – the lot).

Jim Brown as Montezuma Monroe

But let’s go back to Jim Brown first – mostly known on the big screen as one of the Dirty Dozen under Lee Marvin’s orders but also, in my favourite role of his, for playing the badass retired boxer turned Vegas pharaoh in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, who literally kicks the green shit out of hundreds of bulbous headed invaders to reunite with Pam Grier and his kids. In Any Given Sunday, he is Montezuma Monroe (what a name), sporting the kind of manly moustache upon which blaxploitation franchises were once built. Brown steals every scene he’s in with his geriatric ghetto pep-talks and proto Sam Jackson swagger, walking away with the film’s best line, the classic “I don’t get strokes motherfucker, I give ’em!”  Purists might object to the use of the best running back in history as a defence guru (a bit like having a “soccer” flick with Pelé playing the goalkeepers’ trainer) but Jim Brown brings sincerity and credibility to the role, as well as a note of much-needed authenticity and legitimacy to the director who did not manage to get the NFL authorisation to use real franchise names and had to rebaptise the Superbowl the Pantheon Cup. Brown’s world-weary, “too old for this shit” partnership with Al Pacino works wonders and you almost believe him when Monroe ponders with tremolo in his voice giving up pro football for going back to coaching high-school teams, where the game is “pure” (though anyone who ever watched the sublime TV series Friday Night Lights obviously knows better than that).

Taylor as Terminator

On the other hand, Shark, closely based on Lawrence Taylor’s real-life persona but also very reminiscent of Shaquille O’ Neal in its gigantic exuberance, is probably a more arresting character in the sense that he stands as the perfect epitome of the modern sport superstar. Also, before I get into further sociologic convolutions, he’s just pretty awesome: colourful, engaging and always funny (check his hilarious dance moves at the charity ball or this sleazy deleted scene from the same portion of the film) – the kind of guy that will circular-saw your Chevrolet in two in order to school you on the indispensable reliance of the offense on the defence, and vice-versa. Lawrence Taylor, with his imposing frame, Jaws-like smile and undeniable charm seems to be having a ball the whole film – after all, didn’t he always dream of himself as a movie star? (see The Terminator vintage ad, left)

Shark is the charismatic captain of the Miami Sharks’s defence and the soul of the franchise, loved by fans and staff alike. He’s also a gold-toothed egocentric, a veteran obsessed by his bonuses, deciding to squeeze as much money as he can from the twilight years of his career. He’s a gladiator in Nike shoes fearlessly descending into the arena with a badly healed broken neck, his personal sword of Damocles, giving it 100% on any given Sunday but also, and probably consequently, a keen consumer of enhancement and recreational drugs. Shark is a “superfly brother in the white men’s world” (Willie Beamen’s words) who “can’t take a piss in the morning without a pill” (his doctor’s words), a party organizer whose motto is “no semen, no blood on the sheets”. Put simply, he’s both a living contradiction and the identikit of the 21st century pro athlete, an ubermensh with a broken body, disciplined on the field and dissolute as soon as he leaves it.

Shark is not a schizophrenic character though – his love of football is as genuine as his love of money, a fact made clear in the scene when the medical team tries to persuade him to retire early to avoid a fatal injury. Football IS money, two things so intrinsically imbricated that for the pro athlete the concepts are synonymous, there is no difference between the two.  This doesn’t render his plea for team spirit to Willie Beamen before the play-offs less genuine than his bonus bargaining. After the tremendous block that secures the semi-finals but confines him to a stretcher, his first words are, resuming consciousness, “did I block him?” quickly followed by Coach Monroe’s answer: “yes baby, you made your bonus!”. To the paramedics, Shark concludes: “Don’t drop me, I’m worth a million dollars”. Winning and making money is just the same damn thing in modern sport, and just like in Wall Street, “greed is good”. One athlete’s individual value is now measured in dollars rather than numbers of broken records, in the same way that Jay-Z evaluates his musical career by the number of copies he moved rather than his actual artistic quality. Shark is both a scion of Monroe’s legacy and its antithesis – they both care enormously about the game but associate different values to it.

Sport fans love to oppose loyalty and materialism, devotion to the game and cupidity. Morality has always been a dubious concept in sports, and definitely a bygone ideal since the game became one of the most lucrative job a man can ever do. Oliver Stone’s achievement in Any Given Sunday is to present this false paradox as something understandable, which says a lot about our love/hate relationship to stadium gods. No matter how unlikeable they can be, as long as they have talent and perform during game time we can never resist these spoiled overgrown children, just like the self-righteous doc played by Matthew Modine who ends up surrendering to Shark’s charm and administrates him doping products. In other words, Oliver Stone tackles once again the seductive side of capitalism and Shark is just another – though bulkier – Gordon Gekko.

Guillaume Gendron runs the culture and music blog Le Double G and can be followed on Twitter @ggendron20.

Characters that I love #8 – Griffin Dunne as Jack Goodman – An American Werewolf In London (John Landis, 1981)

Griffin Dunne as Jack

Almost thirty years on from its initial release, John Landis’ culture-clash horror An American Werewolf in London remains a deeply odd movie. The film’s premise is classic genre stuff; man bitten by wolf turns into werewolf at full moon, and goes on killing rampage. The waters of an ostensibly simple tale are muddied, however, by a series of bizarre tonal shifts from broad comedy to dark psychological thriller, spatial dislocation (why, oh why, does David end up in a London hospital when he’s attacked in Yorkshire?) and a bracingly abrupt ending that verges on the upsetting.

Werewolf begins with two young American tourists traversing the terrain of the Yorkshire moors. David (David Naughton) is clearly the more enthusiastic traveller of the two, with Jack (Griffin Dunne) ill-at-ease in unfamiliar surroundings, betraying his disdain with a stream of sarcastic asides, and more interested in discussing his preferred female conquests. Clad in primary-colour bodywarmers and sporting similarly lustrous brown hair, they enter an ominous pub named The Slaughtered Lamb seeking refuge and sticking out like proverbial sore thumbs. The pub, populated by a collection of stony-faced, flat-cap clad locals (including Kes‘ despotic PE teacher Brian Glover and, in a very early screen appearance, Bottom‘s Rik Mayall), offers them a particularly stony reception. After a terse exchange, they are cast out into the moors and before long, are lost. Suddenly, Jack is mercilessly savaged by a venomous lycanthrope who soon goes after David but only succeeds in injuring him. That, as they say, is that for Jack. Well, it should be, but in a masterstroke from writer-director John Landis (also responsible for Michael Jackson’s visually resemblant Thriller) Jack is soon to return to haunt David as a particularly laid-back corpse languishing in the afterlife.

Special Effects guru Rick Baker goes to work on Griffin Dunne

Already sardonic in the land of the living, Jack becomes positively louche in limbo. In his first post-death appearance, he pays David a visit at his hospital bedside, livid with blood and with skin flapping from his neck, casually urging David to kill himself to avoid any further wolf-based mayhem, and to free him from oblivion. David can’t decide whether Jack’s appearance is merely another of his frequent fever dreams, and is even less certain when he appears for a second time, in a state of further decomposition, at the house of his new girlfriend (his nurse, played stiffly by Jenny Agutter). David fails to heed his friend’s warnings and embarks on a series of murderous jaunts in the form of the wolf (including one memorably tense sequence shot in an eerily empty Tottenham Court Road tube station).

Jack’s final appearance, fittingly for his slightly sleazy nature, finds him rotting away in the back of a seedy porn theatre in Piccadilly Circus, decomposed to the extent that Dunne is now voice-acting only, having been replaced in physical form by a particularly diseased looking animatronic dummy. The jaded Jack is now the de-facto leader of a chorus of corpses in various stages of degeneration, all of whom ghoulishly suggest ways in which David could commit suicide.

Jack is a great character for a number of reasons. Firstly, his close connection with David adds an extra degree of poignancy to the unwitting murders that Jack commits and his ultimate demise; he is giving his friend the best advice he can, but his words of wisdom go unheeded as David gradually loses his grip, eventually succumbing to a barrage of police gunfire; it is worth remembering that at the heart of this story lies the tragic death of two young innocents abroad. As an essentially comic construction however, Jack also strikes just the right note of absurdist humour, simultaneously wry and horrific. Furthermore, in our modern age of bloodless, unemotive CGI, Jack’s appearance (along with David’s spellbinding homo-lupine transition) magnificently showcases a golden age of cinema in which convincing make-up and special effects were a tangible labour of love. Dunne had to sit in make-up for hours each day with Special Effects wizard Rick Baker (Videodrome, Thriller) to achieve the believable look of a man who was certainly dead, but not quite dead enough to preclude him from wandering around the back streets of Soho for a few days.

Jack is portrayed with laid-back elan by Griffin Dunne, a New York actor/director almost certainly best known for his defining lead role in Martin Scorsese’s pitch black 1985 comedy After Hours, in which he essayed a white collar drone way out of his depth in New York’s own SoHo. His performances in these two films can only make one wonder why he didn’t make more of an impact as an actor. After all, how many films can you name in which a sarcastic, decomposing corpse steals the show?

Characters that I love #7 – Matthew McConaughey as David Wooderson – Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)

A Time To Chill (*regular caption writer on holiday)

“That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age. Yes they do…”

And so runs the manifesto of Matthew McConaughey’s David Wooderson and the brotherhood of borderline sex criminals he represents. Incapable of relinquishing their never-ending youth and the abundance of teen babes that accompany it, these man-children live out a perpetual adolescence in the manner of stoned, sex-crazed Peter Pans. McConaughey depicts the creepy older guy we have all encountered; forever knocking around with school-age teens in order to impress them with his car, drugs and shitty taste in music. The appeal of this type of character should be restricted to those young enough not to know better, but unfortunately I see something in this man that I admire. For one thing Wooderson looks pretty fresh in this film. This breed of man often does, for the elixir of teenage poon fends off the ageing process far more effectively than regular exercise and the occasional Berocca.

The techniques employed by Wooderson in order to entice underage girls seem almost quaint by today’s standards. Rather than taking a couple of kegs of low quality American lager to an isolated stretch of woodland, the modern day nonce-lite plies his trade in squat parties and Red Bull sponsored music events, shovelling bumps of Ketamine into the faces of his teenage conquests while remaining ever alert to the threat of potential sexual rivals. Contemporary courting rituals may seem unsavoury when compared those depicted in Dazed and Confused, but both methods ultimately yield the same unpleasant results. It is a dance as old as time itself.

Possibly the most remarkable thing about Wooderson is that it is a role performed by Matthew McConaughey that forces the viewer to neither a) leave the cinema while muttering obscenities under their breath, or b) calmly walk over to the DVD player, press eject and then launch into a 5-minute tirade at the expense of his girlfriend who had ‘accidently’ added The Lincoln Lawyer on to their shared LoveFilm list. Linklater, seemingly imbued with supernatural powers when directing this film, also manages to elicit an excellent performance from the usually interminable Ben Affleck, who portrays sadistic jock Fred O’Bannion. Having been held back an additional year at High School, O’Bannion relieves his frustrations by feverishly chasing around androgynous pubescent boys in order to strike their buttocks with a wooden paddle/replacement penis. Obviously a wholly unsympathetic character, Affleck depicts a sexually confused teenage boy possessed of reduced mental and emotional faculties with admirable precision.

There are obviously darker facets to the kind of character that Wooderson represents, but Dazed and Confused is not the film to address them. The positive feeling engendered by this playful coming of age comedy would be heavily compromised if the audience were to be exposed to the everyday realities of Wooderson’s life as lived away from pool halls, Aerosmith concerts and the backseat of his Chevrolet. I would love to see a film that depicted the day-to-day drudgery of his job ‘in the city’ and the grim reality of the hangover suffered by a man approaching his thirties. It could be a drama in the style of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, presenting the portrait of a man so crippled with self-doubt he is unable to relate to his own peer group, so must ingratiate himself with the senior year students at his local High School. Each year he must watch his new friends leave him behind as they depart for the adult world from which he has been excluded.

In a recent study of black-headed Spider monkeys (yes it’s a real animal) it was shown that adolescent primates abandoned by their mothers or reared by particularly neglectful ones face an increased challenge when assimilating into their peer group. They tend to be improperly socialised and therefore unable to form bonds within their own cohort. They were most commonly embraced by a younger member of the group and formed closer ties to younger monkeys. Looking at the uncanny parallels in the behaviour of Wooderson and these fucked-up monkeys, I’d be very surprised if Linklater did not have a very similar back-story in mind when creating the character of David Wooderson. So next time you see a grown man in his late 20s/early 30s parked at the gates of your local sixth form college, pumping the latest indie hits from his VW Polo, resist the urge to laugh, or even key his car. In all likelihood you are looking at a very damaged, insecure man, who has never recovered from the trauma of being abandoned by his mother.

Contributor Jack Scragg runs the blog Big Balls and can be followed on Twitter @noncewing.

Characters that I love #6 – Laurence Fishburne as Jimmy Jump – King of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990)

“OH MY GOD! THAT’S MY DAUGHTER” exclaimed a distraught George C Scott in Paul Schrader’s magnificent 1979 film Hardcore, upon discovering that his pride and joy had been mixing it with the likes of ‘Big Dick Blaque’ in L.A.’s “entertainment” underworld. In a case of life imitating art, a similar fate recently befell veteran actor Laurence Fishburne when his daughter Montana (or Chippy D, to use her nom de porn) began popping up in underrated gems such as Phattys, Rhymes & Dimes 14. Now if I were Chippy, I would have thought long and hard about casting shame upon my father in such a way, for fear of serious reprisals. Laurence Fishburne, a truly imposing figure, is such a badass that he lied about his age when he was 14 to appear in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Fishburne has never been more threatening than his performance in Abel Ferrara’s sleazy, neon-lit thriller King of New York, in which he stars as Jimmy Jump, the psychotic, hair-trigger lieutenant of Robin Hood-esque criminal overlord Frank White (a berserk turn from Christopher Walken’s hair, ably supported by Christoper Walken). The contrast to his performance as the straight-backed, stand-up, hectoring father Furious Styles in John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood a year later couldn’t be more marked. Whereas Styles is responsible, hard-working and rather dogmatic, Jimmy Jump has literally no redeeming features whatsoever (unless you count his natty part-Run DMC, part-Clockwork Orange hat). He exists solely to wind people up, then shoot them. In doing so, he steals the whole film.

Replete with gold chains, gold teeth and dressed in black, Fishburne is a textbook hood, and dominates every scene that he’s in, beginning with his first appearance at a fraught drug deal in a posh hotel. He harries the chemist (a young Steve Buscemi) into giving him a sample of the goods, talks rapidly and incessantly, and finally presents a Hispanic coke-peddler with a suitcase full of tampons to plug the bullet holes he’s about to fill him with. Rangy, lanky and constantly on the move, Jump is like a wiry middleweight boxer pepped up with a banned substance.

Later, in one of the film’s most famous sequences, Jump personifies the swaggering arrogance of urban malaise, terrorising a defenceless fast-food shop worker before pulling a hugely unconvincing care-in-the-community stunt in giving a Grandma and her brood some ill-gotten cash.

Just as it seems Jump is going to be given a free pass to run roughshod over everything and everyone, Ferrara presents him with a two-headed nemesis in the form of embittered cops Dennis Gilley (a scenery-chewing David Caruso) and the oddly Irishly-named Tommy Flanigan (a very non-Irish Wesley Snipes), or “Howdy Doody and the Chocolate Wonder”, as Jump hilariously dubs them. Jump doesn’t like Gilley, but he hates Flanigan, homing in on his race at every opportunity. For Jump, Flanigan (married to a white woman, and “only black man here” amongst his cop buddies) is an Uncle Tom, a race-traitor of the highest order, and he taunts him accordingly. Flanigan returns fire, suggesting that Jump is a flunky to White. There is a crackling tension between Jump and Flanigan; they really hate each other’s guts, and their enmity provides an already electric film with an added charge, culminating in an epic final confrontation between the two in a rain-slicked wasteland.

In terms of character development, there isn’t much to speak of. Jimmy Jump begins the film a coked-up, confrontational psycho-antagonist and ends it exactly the same way. At one point, White asks Jump why he never came to visit him in jail. After an awkward silence, Jump simply states “Who wanted to see you in a cage?” It’s impossible to read his face; maybe he didn’t care about White, maybe he really didn’t want to see his employer in captivity. It’s the closest we come to ever seeing a second dimension to Jump, but it doesn’t really matter. Jump just enjoys killing people.

Fishburne plays Jump with such manic intensity that it’s hard to shake him from your mind after the credits roll. Even in the throes of death, he cackles ghoulishly and wriggles around. A stunning performance from an actor the very top of his game, this is one Fishburne that you would not want to fuck with.

Characters that I love #5 – David Patrick Kelly as Luther – The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)

As difficult – nay impossible – as it is to imagine now, Walter Hill’s gaudy gangbanger romp sparked huge controversy upon its release back in 1979. Perhaps the tough-talking tagline (‘These are the Armies of The Night. They are 60,000 strong. They outnumber the cops three to one. They could run New York City. Tonight they’re all out to get the Warriors’) was a touch rich for the ultra-conservative Reaganite cultural protectors of the time.

However, anyone who clapped eyes on the film would know within moments that it was not one to be taken particularly seriously. In the famed opening sequence, the gangs of New York are revealed to be a collection of slender, extravagantly costumed prancers with more in common with the cast of Glee than the Bloods and Crips of LA. If anything, the sight of so many metrosexual gentlemen should have given the NYPD a morale boost. Over-the-top in the right way, The Warriors rattles by in a flash of colour, music and expertly choreographed fight sequences.

Perhaps the least palatable element of the film is its pathologically retrograde sexual politics; the one female character given voice is a scantily clad prostitute threatened with rape by the most noble Warrior, then told that she’d probably enjoy it. The all-female gang The Lizzies (geddit?) transpire to be laughably awful at fighting, though even Andrea Dworkin might’ve had to suppress a chuckle at their shambolic attempts at scrapping.

In the middle of all the camp and circumstance, one turn stands out as particularly ridiculous. In David Patrick Kelly’s Luther, we are treated to one of the most singularly unthreatening screen villain performances of all time. With the frame of a child, the voice of a flu-stricken teenage girl, and the hair of Rod Hull, Luther gobbles up the scenery, screeching and snivelling all the way. In later years, Kelly developed a reputation as a wiry, intense character actor (as well as turning up in Commando as the ill-fated Sully) but here his performance is hysterical – so strange it’s almost literally mindblowing.

The leader of denim n’ leather bad boy outfit The Rogues, Luther is first spotted in the crowd that gathers to watch big boss Cyrus deliver a booming basso keynote speech. Apropro of nothing, Luther decides to cap Cyrus, and pin the blame upon The Warriors, thus kicking the chase plot into action. In the course of the next hour-and-a-bit, Luther proceeds to indimidate his cowardly, bovine-looking lieutenant, and throw a petulant wobbler at a kiosk girl who reasonably demands payment for some candy (What kind of hardcore gang distributes sweeties to its members?) Luther’s dual coup-de-grace is his nails-down-a-blackboard mantra of ‘WARR-EE-ORRRRS… COME OUT TO PLAY-EE-AYYY’, and his majestically pathetic subsequent capitulation on a Coney Island beach.

London’s wonderful Prince Charles Cinema recently screened the film, although unfortunately in its bowdlerized “director’s cut” version, replete with catastrophically rubbish cartoon transitions which derail its relentless narrative momentum. However, for all the disappointment that caused, it was more than made up for by the chance to see such an outrageous performance on the big screen.

Here are Luther’s best bits, thanks to wonderfully named YouTuber killpoo1111111111111.

Characters that I love #4 – John Turturro as Paulie Carbone – Jungle Fever (Spike Lee, 1991)

Of Spike Lee’s myriad achievements, one that is often overlooked is his crucial role in developing the careers of some of the best actors of the last couple of decades. The likes of Samuel L Jackson, Delroy Lindo, Denzel Washington (and even the redoutable Charlie Murphy of Chapelle Show fame) all worked regularly under his direction on their road to notoriety. Perhaps his most intriguing working relationship, however, is with the chameleonic character actor John Turturro, whom he has directed on no fewer than nine occasions . Here, I have chosen to focus on Turturro’s role in Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, and how he manages to transcend some of the mercurial, talented filmmaker’s less appealing habits.

As the generically-named American-Italian shop worker Paulie Carbone (consider that Wesley Snipes and Samuel L Jackson get to be called Flipper and Gator Purify, respectively) the amazingly versatile character actor imbues Lee’s fundamentally messy (and largely quite depressing) interracial relationship drama Jungle Fever with real heart and hope.

We first encounter the rather limp Paulie as the long-term companion of Annabella Sciorra’s Angie Tucci, who soon embarks on a risky affair with her architect boss Flipper. Freshly dumped, yet enamoured with Tyra Ferrell’s friendly Orin Goode, and dismissive of his ignorant crew’s ingrained bigotry, Carbone keeps a level head when all around are losing theirs and bravely pursues a relationship with the black lady. Although Erin is cautious, there is more than enough spark between them to suggest that a bright future may lie ahead.

Whilst the film is certainly honest in its intentions, it exhibits Lee’s familiar difficulty with self-editing, as well as his habit of introducing a variety of ideas without giving himself the scope or narrative space to fully develop them. Therefore, the subtlety of the subplot around Paulie and Orin, buried underneath the sturm-und-drang of savage famililal beatings, religious fundamentalism, police harrassment and crack addiction, is not only rare evidence of Lee’s lesser spotted lighter touch but a necessary respite amongst the drama and relentless issue-raising.

John Turturro (left) as Paulie Carbone and Tyra Ferrell (right) as Orin Goode, with Spike in the middle

Turturro’s performance is even more remarkable when viewed in contrast with his vicious turn as the racist Pino in the director’s earlier Do The Right Thing. In Jungle Fever, he manipulates his unusual features (framed by a pretty shoddy haircut) into a sympathetic visage. When he takes a beating from his friends in one scene, and pops up battered and bruised at Orin’s door in the next, the effect is uplifting. Similarly, when he virtually ignores a jettisoned, tail-between-legs Angie, you feel like cheering.

Turturro’s grace and dignity are greatly appreciated in a film rife with wildly uneven performances and laced with incidental caricature. On the plus side, Samuel L Jackson is utterly convincing and frankly terrifying as Flipper’s crackhead brother Gator. However, Tim Robbins and Brad Dourif are beyond parodic as the smarmy partners of Flipper’s architecture firm and the late Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn, in particular, as Paulie’s controlling father, turns in a performance so hammy that his rushes must have dry-cured overnight.

As in Do the Right Thing, The Big Lebowski, Five Corners, The Colour of Money and To Live and Die in L.A., we should be grateful for the shadings of a superb character actor at the top of his game. It’s a shame he’s not had more leading roles such as his greatest ever moment in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece Barton Fink. It’s a wonderful thing that Lee is able to bring the very best out of him.

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