Monday, January 25, 2010

Screw Clooney! (Actors Whose Sex Appeal Transcends Their Non-Leading Man Looks)

Hollywood history doesn’t include many stars like Sal Mineo, a character actor whose feral cat charisma enabled him to hold his own onscreen against no lesser an icon of otherworldly beauty than the equally tragic James Dean. In “Who Killed Teddy Bear?,” Joseph Cates’s riveting sexploitation film noir – which recently screened in a rare 35mm print at NYC’s Anthology Film Archives – about a Times Square disco hostess (the always stunning Juliet Prowse) being stalked by an obscene caller Mineo plays Lawrence, a quiet busboy caring for his mentally retarded younger sister. Quite early on we learn he’s also deeply disturbed. Yet when Prowse’s character Norah unaware of Lawrence’s distasteful predilections compliments him on his toned body after a swim in the local gym’s pool we buy that she might be attracted to this creep. The average looking Mineo could make even a perverted weirdo sexy.

Which brings us to the myth of modern Hollywood – reflected in 21st century life – that beauty and sexiness always go hand in hand. I find this utterly ridiculous. Though I wouldn’t necessarily kick Brad Pitt out of bed, I certainly would grab a one-night-stand with Willem Dafoe over sex with Angelina’s leading man hubby anytime anyplace (of course, the seedier the better). In the good old movie days nondescript manly men like Humphrey Bogart could land vixens like Lauren Bacall without having to resemble Clark Gable; and while the women didn’t do quite so well in Tinseltown an Italian siren such as Anna Magnani looked to be every bit as good a lay as knockout Sophia Loren.

So, with all due respect, to George Clooney, Matt Damon, Will Smith and all those other A-list handsome nice guys, here are five lesser mortals who I’d green light over you in the sack. Beauty is only skin deep, after all, while sexiness comes from the mind and soul.

Willem Dafoe

Bobby Peru. The two words that sealed the Dafoe deal for me. Watching Dafoe as Bobby meticulously mentally disassemble then mind-fuck Laura Dern’s Lula in David Lynch’s warped “Wild At Heart” changed my life. Dafoe tapped into the dirty little secret that you don’t have to look like Nic Cage if you’ve got the X-ray vision to discern another’s most secret desires, and the balls to coax that taboo out into the light of day. Bobby tells Lula he likes a woman with nice tits who talks tough “and looks like she can fuck like a bunny.” “Do you fuck like that, huh?" he teasingly whispers from across the room. Even when Dafoe is playing the good guy (like in “Mississippi Burning” two decades ago) his fiery sinister sexuality can’t be extinguished. Bunny jump fast!

Peter Mullan

I last saw Peter Mullan playing a less than chaste priest at a press screening of the “Red Riding Trilogy” (due out in February) and it was like running into an old lover you hadn’t thought about in years. The Scottish actor first came to my attention for his riveting performance as a struggling alcoholic in “My Name Is Joe,” and though he may not have the classic studio looks of fellow countryman Sean Connery, he’s got the same aggressive and magnetic masculinity. Mullan doesn’t light up the screen so much as render it null and void, with those lascivious voyeuristic eyes that are forever roving and calculating. Indeed, it’s possible to leave the theater wondering who was watching whom.

Tim Roth

Whether it’s “Made in Britain,” “Little Odessa” or “Reservoir Dogs” Roth has a bad boy habit of seducing us with his primal intensity. He commands attention even when in a terrible made-for-TV movie like “Tsunami: The Aftermath,” in which he played a tousled roguish journalist. There’s a striking scene in that otherwise forgettable flick where Roth’s character, fed up with an incompetent bureaucracy, orders a drink at a bar. The camera lingers a tad too long in the uncomfortable tension emanating from Roth’s journo as he doesn’t ask but absolutely demands. Roth knows the line between need and desire is fluid, and he walks it with the sultry skill of a tight-wire artist.

John Malkovich

What Spike Jonze captured in “Being John Malkovich” was the same sexy quality apparent in “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Ripley’s Game” and even “Shadow of the Vampire” (opposite fellow sinister hottie Willem Dafoe) – the aspect of being an enigma. The elusive Malkovich compels us with his unreadable, hence unattainable, demeanor, forever creating secretive characters to toy with us. Unlike hot-blooded Roth Malkovich is an ice prince, a cool tease. Rather than give us what we want he’ll always leave us begging for more.

Christopher Walken

From the start of his career the gangly song and dance man was just too weird to be a lead. As good as he was in “The Deer Hunter” Walken’s striking physicality and creepy charisma often overtake the character of Nick, and it wouldn’t be until madman Abel Ferrara came along to cast him in “King of New York” that his offbeat air of sexual menace was allowed to fully shine through. Even weirder Ferrara did the same for unconventional Harvey Keitel in “Bad Lieutenant.” Walken like Keitel makes you feel dirty just by watching him, as if there’s a pornographic subtext hidden inside his every line.

Talking Seduction with "Fish Tank" director Andrea Arnold

I can barely remember the first time I had sex. I mean, I remember the details of picking up a bar-back named Jeff at the Limelight nightclub in the early nineties and letting him take me back to his apartment for some straight-up screwing. What I don’t recall is any mind-blowing sensation – any “eureka!” moment of realization, of suddenly knowing that that’s what the big deal was. To me a one-night-stand seemed akin to just another night of sweaty clubbing.

Yet I do remember the first time I got mind-fucked. It left me in a state of ecstasy greater than any vanilla sex ever had. And I can recall those details vividly the same way a born again Christian recollects the moment of finding true religion. It was Thanksgiving weekend 1995 and I was in Boston visiting my friend Aimee who was attending Harvard at the time. It was at the goth club Man Ray that I met Arthur, tall with a mane of long black hair flowing down the back of his black leather jacket, a twinkle in his eye and a half-amused smile on his face that said he’d seen (and tamed) oh-so-cool types like me many times before. I wanted him more than I’d ever wanted a man mostly because he was so aloof, exuded the unattainable. Yet I did work my flirtatious skills enough to get him to accompany me back to Aimee’s Cambridge pad where I soon made a move to meet his lips as he gently stroked my leg while we sat on the couch. His arm shot out, hand grabbing my hair as he pulled me away then kissed me instead. As things got hotter and heavier and I straddled his lap fully clothed he deftly pinned my arms behind my back, held me still as if taking mental note of this unusual pose for future reference. Then he asked me what I was into. “Sex,” I answered confused. “Just sex?” he wondered in his Schwarzenegger-sounding accent. “Sure, why? What are you into?” I countered feeling my na├»ve age (nearly a decade his junior). “Bondage,” he replied firmly stating the sexiest word I’d ever heard. And then out of the blue Arthur announced he didn’t do one-night-stands, that he’d call and come visit me in NYC sometime soon. Despite my protests that bordered on shameless begging he stood up and sauntered out the door. Leaving me shocked and angry, and sexually frustrated and utterly thrilled all at the same time. That was the night I fell madly in love with BDSM.

Of course, this is just one of a million stories of sexual awakening in the naked city. (And yes, Arthur stayed true to his word.) More recently, I thought about this life altering experience and the myriad forms of seduction and loss of innocence while reviewing “Fish Tank,” Andrea Arnold’s stunning follow up to her equally visceral, Cannes-winning debut “Red Road.” In the film Michael Fassbender’s older man Connor has an extremely hot and unnerving encounter with Katie Jarvis’s teenage Mia, the rebellious daughter of his partying girlfriend. Arnold herself is less a feminist than part of an exciting tide of British directors, Shane Meadows included, who are redefining the kitchen sink realism of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh for a new post-punk generation. But when I sat down with the critically acclaimed director at the Soho Grand a few weeks back that gorgeously specific, coming-of-age scene in “Fish Tank” stood foremost in my mind. Fortunately, the very accessible Arnold was more than happy to shed light on the importance of detail, female insight and listening to imaginary horses.

LW: First off, one of the things that most impresses me is how concise and precise the images are in your films. You say everything you need to say within the least amount of frames. Obviously a lot of people are going to think of the kitchen sink realism of Loach and Leigh but there’s also a poetic, nearly Neorealist quality to your work. Can you talk a bit about your filmmaking influences?

AA: Ooh, I have quite a lot. Everyone from Terence Malick to the Dardenne brothers to David Lynch, Michael Haneke –

LW: “The White Ribbon.” Everyone hated it but me. (laughs)

AA: Yeah, I saw it at Telluride. I don’t know if I was just in a funny mood that day, but it was the first time during a Haneke film that I wanted to leave the cinema.

LW: That’s good!

AA: Yeah, I know. He wants me to feel that way.

LW: Well, you direct in a similar way. I mean, you don’t have a comfortable filmmaking style at all. That seduction scene between Connor and Mia, which is the centerpiece of “Fish Tank” – that’s damn hard to watch.

AA: Yeah, one of my friends described it as “everything I didn’t want and everything I wanted.”

LW: Let’s talk a little bit about that disturbing scene, because interestingly, I found myself smiling during it.

AA: (laughs surprised) Oh, really?

LW: Yes, but what made me smile was the realization that this is a director who actually “gets it” – how seduction can turn to coercion in the blink of an eye. I can’t remember when I’ve seen this rite-of-passage aspect even depicted onscreen and yet it’s something a lot of teenage girls go through. It was like a catharsis for me to see it. It’s also a situation few teenage boys ever experience, which is maybe why male filmmakers wouldn’t think to depict it. Can you talk a bit about its importance and how you developed it? It also happens to be the most visually stylized scene in the film.

AA: Well, I think a lot of it just starts with the writing. When I’m writing I try hard to imagine that situation and how it would really be. And a lot of the details, I think it goes back to what you were saying about being precise. I’m able to concentrate on details, to really think them through, to really imagine them. Quite often there will be some strange detail that I don’t even understand. There was an earlier short where I wanted a shot of a balloon floating across this wasteland. And I’m getting everyone to do the shot, and I don’t think they understood quite what I was getting at, but I somehow knew it was really important.

LW: David Lynch works that way.

AA: Oh really? Does he? (laughs flattered) Well, like with the horse in this film. When I was writing about the horse –

LW: Was that the first image that you had when you started writing?

AA: No, it wasn’t the first. But when I started writing at the beginning always there was that horse. I actually wrote two different beginnings, just trying to find my way into the story, to try to see this person, to ask, “What is she doing on this day?” Yet every time I started writing about her, every time I came at it a different way, the story still came from the horse. And the horse in the script was always an old, dirty brown horse. It wasn’t a white one. But she just kept meeting that horse so I thought, well, the horse is supposed to be there. I didn’t question it. A couple people said it was a metaphor – a heavy-handed metaphor – but I never meant for it to be a metaphor for her situation. The horse just wanted to be there.

LW: Sometimes a horse is just a horse.

AA: Maybe so.

“Fish Tank” is now playing at a theater near you. My review and interview with lead actor Michael Fassbender is now playing at Slant Magazine.

Friday, January 1, 2010

My Fave Film of The Past Decade

If I had to choose only one movie of the past ten years to be stranded with on a deserted island it would be Martin Campbell’s smart and sassy “Casino Royale.” The director and his cast and crew collectively returned a sense of fun and play not only to the Bond franchise, but to the blockbuster as well. This popcorn flick’s got something to lure practically everyone into abandoning oneself to the magic of the screen. There’s richly drawn characters embodied not by stars but by highly skilled, hardworking actors (a definition that still fits Daniel Craig despite the film’s subsequently launching him into the cinematic stratosphere). Watch the chemistry between and concentrated performances from the likes of Craig (as a thuggish Bond cut from the roguish Connery cloth), Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre and Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter during that famous high-stakes poker tournament – they could just as easily be performing Mamet on Broadway! The film’s action sequences are actually thrilling because they are organically connected to the swift-moving script, as opposed to mere excuses to blow something up so as not to disappoint a test market audience. Not to mention the riveting storyline keeps you on the edge of your seat like Ian Fleming’s page-turners did in the first place. Heck, as an added bonus there’s even a steamy gay leather scene between (my personal fetish object) Craig and sexy Mikkelsen! “Casino Royale” is classic, feel-good, Hollywood comfort food served up with just the right amount of spice.