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'Low Down, The'

Thumbs up on 'Low Down'

Friday, April 20, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Frank is late-twentysomething, still mourning his studentdom plus the inescapable fact that his life consists of nothing but work and pals. The work (he's a TV game-show prop designer) and the pals are both problematic and starting to bore him. He needs an emotional tune-up and a change of existential oil -- among other changes.

'The Low Down'

RATING: Unrated but R in nature for sexual themes and some nudity

STARRING: Aiden Gillen, Kate Ashfield

DIRECTOR: Jamie Thraves



Don't we all?

Yes. But twentysomethings feel such needs more urgently and erotically than fiftysomethings, which makes for better movies.

A highly original case at hand is "The Low Down," British director Jamie Thraves' debut feature, starring Aiden Gillen as disaffected Frank and Kate Ashfield as sweet Ruby, a half-hearted real-estate agent who just may -- or may not -- be the one to affect him.

Ruby's work is cut out for her: The depth of Frank's troubled yearning is matched by his equally deep lack of self-confidence and communication skills. Self-consciously aware and frustrated by those failings, the more he needs to relate, the more he clams up. She keeps trying, but they keep "missing" each other verbally.

Subplots include the romantic ruckus surrounding his job foreman-friend Mike (Dean Lennox Kelly), but the film is primarily a character study of Frank -- sexy, likable young guy, conflicted in every way, who makes grotesque, absurdly huge plaster heads, hands and other body parts for a living. He is soulfully portrayed by Gillen, who shot to fame in the BBC's hit gay series "Queer As Folk" and is particularly fine here in a berserk explosion against his annoying friend John (Tobias Menzies), who never quite finished that Dostoyevsky novel ("I read the crime but not the punishment").

Doggedly avant-garde, occasionally quite funny, it is the cutting edge of post-Gen X (or whatever they're calling the current angst-ridden youth crop) "relationship" drama with moments of neo-romantic comedy. Thraves' inspirations and borrowed techniques derive from -- well, almost everybody, but mostly the domestic autopsies of John Cassavetes and the '60s French New Wave cinema language of Jean-Luc Godard. Thraves' ECU's (filmspeak for extreme close-ups) fracture and divide people's faces in a downright cubist manner. He encourages ad-lib spontaneity in his actors (Ashfield, a rare feminine boxer in real life, has a nice little postcoital sparring match with Gillen). His use of hand-held camera lends home-movie realism to events that more often than not are nonevents -- letting the characters and the narrative rather than the camera lead the way.

This writer-director's prior credentials consist mainly of one well-received short subject ("Scratch" -- about a man who won't stop scratching his head) and a batch of British music videos. What is it with these American and English producers that makes them think flashy MTV craftsmen can innately direct movies? The usual result is barren -- a 90-minute music-video indulgence, posing as a real film.

But Thraves, his "Low Down" and its prickly screenplay are different, better: artsy, but wildly creative and engrossing -- a fresh eclectic mix of Euro verite and edgy American semi-improvisation, recombined to render Angry Young Anglo Man's modern alienation.

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