Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Screens Everywhere: Rage

In the 1960’s colorful sprawling epics were filmed in Cinemscope or Panavision to deliver a huge widescreen viewing experience. Today, directors are deliberately calibrating films for the small screens of wireless phones and online video sites. Evidently, this is progress. Sally Potter, the acclaimed British director of Orlando and The Tango Lesson, took the trend a step further, filming her latest film Rage as if it were shot by a student on his cell phone. After premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, Rage (trailer here) will be released by Babelgum online and as a series of cell phone downloads starting tomorrow, with the DVD hitting stores on Tuesday.

Rage is the knowingly ironic truncation of the fashion industry cliché: “all the rage.” For the ill-fated show Michelangelo ostensibly documents for his school project, it becomes especially apt, as protestors picket the outsourcing of textile jobs and models start dying under mysterious circumstances. How Michelangelo gained entrée into this rarified world is never explained, but presumably there is something disarmingly unassuming about him that gets the leading lights of haute couture to reveal their insecurities to him, which of course, he duly posts on the internet for all to see.

Shot with a single camera from Michelangelo’s POV, Rage is essentially a series of dramatic monologues with no interaction between characters. The success of Potter’s approach varies depending on the actor on screen. Not surprisingly, Dame Judi Dench provides the film’s highlights as Mona Carvell, the journalistic terror of the fashion world. While her caustic philosophical musings are thoroughly entertaining, Dench also convincingly brings out the jaded critic’s buried humanism.

Steve Buscemi also fares particularly well in Rage’s minimalist structure. Though he essentially does his regular shtick as Frank the gonzo news photographer, his bug-eyed cynicism is perfectly suited to be diced into snippets and posted online. Danish actor Jakob Cedergren is surprisingly believable as Otto, the corporate PR flack, and Eddie Izzard plays fashion mogul Tiny Diamonds with appropriate larger-than-life panache.

Ironically, John Leguizamo might give the best performance of the film, capturing the physical presence and emotional alienation of Jed, Diamonds’s bodyguard, but it might be too nuanced for installment viewing on handheld screens. Unfortunately, Jude Law is simply an embarrassment as Minx, the androgynous supermodel. This was a case of gimmicky casting that went terribly wrong.

Due in part to its stylized format, Rage is a hit-or-miss affair. While several characters are frankly dull, Potter elicits some nice performances, particularly from Dench, Leguizamo, and Cedergren. Potter’s use of saturated color backgrounds is quite effective on miniature screens and the moody background music she co-composed with avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith strengthens its cinematic cohesion. It might be uneven and stagey, but Rage is more successful than other films made expressly for digital dicing that have recently screened at New York film fests. Look for it online tomorrow and on DVD the next day (9/22).