DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog

Friday, 27 February 2015

Once Upon a Time in America

It took 13 years for Sergio Leone to get this, his last film, onto the big screen. For the most part the time away served him well, as this superlative exercise in gangster cinema, dramatically heightened to the max with the same dreamy romantic sensabilities of his Spaghetti Westerns, comes close to being the final word in prohibition-era crime films.
 
Once Upon a Time in America (1984) dir. Sergio Leone
Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Treat Williams

By Alan Bacchus

The long 229-minute version is available on Blu-ray, and since virtually everyone believes this to be the true version of the film, I doubt we’ll ever see that 139-minute theatrical version ever again. The length does justice to the grandiose emotionally dense character study.

Leone and his team of seven writers tell the story of two best friends, David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (De Niro) and Max 'Max' Bercovicz (Woods)and the evolution of their friendship through their life of crime in 1920s New York City. Leone elegantly moves us through multiple time frames without confusing the audience or giving that ‘flashback’ feel. The opening lengthy sequence in 1933 shows us the extended movements of Noodles after the apparent murder of three of his boyhood friends. The scene carries on for 30 minutes, a set piece so dazzling, it almost seems out of place in the context of the expansive nature of the rest of the story. We don’t really know why Noodles is on the run or why he’s aloof and melancholy as opposed to angry and vengeful after such a horrific act of violence. Ennio Morricone’s swooning romantic score tells us there’s a deeper level of emotion going on, something which Leone’s flashforwards and flashbacks tease us with.

After the opening the film settles down into a more traditional narrative, starting with Noodles and his gang as kids in the '20s moving from petty crime into organized crime in step with flashes to Noodles as an aged adult in the late '60s returning to New York on a mysterious agenda, retracing the steps of his youth.

From the golden brown cinematography to the rich and textured production design of the era to the thematic and narrative connections to the action in the present, the influence of The Godfather Part II is felt through this 1920s storyline. Leone has the same delicate touch as Coppola in these scenes. Leone’s detail in the exterior street scenes is magnificent, teaming with people in every corner of his frames and as far as the camera can see. Leone never attempts to cheat his scenes, instead playing almost all of his action in widescreen grandeur.

Leone's big and small moments have equal weight in all his pictures, and it's never more important here. Just note how little dialogue there is in the film, in particular the opening 30 minutes, a beautiful choreography of camera and actors. Leone's use of all elements of cinema: editing, camerawork and sound design is sublime and masterful. The drone of the telephone ring used in the opening sequence is a surreal use of digitec sound but draws our attention to the significance of a key decision Noodles will make later in the picture. Same with Leone’s attention to the locker key or the charred body in the street – all details set up to be paid off later.

This is the Leone method, peppered into all of his previous films. The incessant drone of that telephone ring recalls Leone’s multiple references to Charles Bronson’s harmonica in Once Upon a Time in America or Lee Van Cleef’’s musical pocket watch in For a Few Dollars More.

A couple of wonky moments fail the film. The performance of some of the children as well as the casting of Elizabeth McGovern as Noodle’s object of desire, Deborah, never works. In fact, I could never see why McGovern got so much work back in those days. I could never take her babyface look seriously in high drama such as this.

But the scene I’ve never been able to reconcile with the rest of the picture is Noodles' rape of Deborah. It comes just before the intermission after the moment Deborah tells Noodles she’s leaving for L.A. to pursue an acting career. Noodles rapes her multiple times in the back of a car. Rape is something most of us don’t desire to see in a film, let alone the veracity with which Leone orchestrates the scene. Deborah’s pleas for Noodles to stop only encourage him to rape her even more aggressively. I understand the purpose of the scene, to create a source of regret for Noodles, destroying the only thing he ever loved, and to find a strong enough story beat that would split the pair before their reunion at the end of the film, but this comes at the expense of any kind of sympathy for the character Leone establishes up this point. Save for an earlier rape during the diamond robbery scene, Noodles was an honourable gangster with convictions and loyalty to his friends. After Deborah's rape, Noodles is never truly taken to task for his despicable actions.

This kind of scene would fit into Leone’s stylized and misogynistic Spaghetti Western genre, but in this more romantic and authentic world he creates for Once Upon a Time in America, the scene is a major crutch for the film.

And so it takes some mental smoothing to get over this scene and some of the wooden acting to appreciate Leone’s swan song as a dreamy, indulgent and grandiose genre film, which it is.

***½

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Blow Out


By 1981, Brian De Palma was well into his ’Hitchcock period’, a string of films in the late 70s going back to 1973’s Sisters, but really starting with 1976’s Obsession, followed by Carrie that same year and then The Fury (1978) and Dressed to Kill (1980), which mashed together Alfred Hitchcock‘s most famous suspense set pieces with a tone of sleazy exploitation and dreamy cinematic bravura. The success of Carrie notwithstanding, Blow Out was arguably De Palma's most accomplished of these films.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Chariots of Fire

The iconic shot of the athletes wearing Wimbledon white, running through the beach, splashing water in slow motion set to the synthesized grandeur of Vangelis's score buoys most of this picture. Looking back, the story of a group of British track and field athletes and their collective journeys to the 1924 Olympics in Paris, fighting for King and Country, is as stuffy and stodgy as British period films come, and is arguably one of the least memorable Best Picture Oscar winners.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Deliverance

Perhaps the ultimate film about the male bravado, four city men, in the outback of Appalachia, out to conquer nature and canoe down the rapids of an untamed river wild, become hunted by a group of hillbilly locals. While some of the character conflict and thematic pronunciations hit the nail on the head, looking back 40 years later, Deliverance is still a riveting adventure film equalled by deep connections of man, nature, class and gender.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

A Streetcar Named Desire

As an exercise in research, I read some of the original reviews for A Streetcar Named Desire, both the 1951 film and the original Broadway play. Surprisingly, very little was made of Marlon Brando, then brand new to both Broadway and Hollywood. Brando's role as Stanley Kowalski, of course, is now almost universally recognized as ground zero for the dramatic shift away from the classical Hollywood studio form of acting to the immersive method style. And yet the original Variety review is surprisingly understated in their praise, writing, "Marlon Brando, at times, captures strongly the brutality of the young Pole, but occasionally he performs unevenly in a portrayal marked by frequent garbling of his dialog." And in the original New York Times stage review, Brando barely gets a mention, "…the rest of the acting is also of very high quality indeed. Marlon Brando as the quick-tempered, scornful, violent mechanic." These statements, with today's eyes, read as hilariously gross understatements.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The Selfish Giant

Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur, Shane Meadows' This is England and Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank have, of late, carried on the tradition of the British kitchen sink genre, but as a vivid portrayal of lower class industrial squalor, Clio Barnard's picture resonates even more strongly. It's tragic and haunting, yet beautiful and tender in equal measure.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Mean Streets

One of the most valued treasures of the Scorsese canon, 'Mean Streets' birthed Scorsese's distinct cinematic vision of the world: street-wise, working class hoods with foul mouths and hair-trigger tempers seen through the lens of a dynamic camera with bursts of slo-motion and jumpy editing, set to a soundtrack of '60s vinyl and Italian crooning classics.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Sundance 2015 - Day Four


The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir. Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

The influential 1971 experiment wherein a groups of students volunteered for a psychological study about behavior, were divided into groups, prisoners and guards, and placed into a mock prison has been studied, discussed at length and even made into two different dramatic films. But even knowing how this story plays out the film is a tense, engaging, provocative and highly relevant political statement without even a whiff of preachiness. But most important it's an example of superb crafty filmmaking. Alvarez channels the cold precision of David Fincher procedurals and a dash of his dry sense of humour. Even if you know where the story is going Alvarez ratchets up the film to sky high levels of tension.


Unexpected (dir. Kris Swanberg)

The highs and lows of pregnancy told through dual stories of a 30-year old teacher (Cobie Smulders) and a 17-year old student (Gail Bean) both of whom received news of their pregnancies unexpectedly. As the nine months go by Smulders and Bean's characters bond over their insecurities and fear and for Smulders in particular the dual journey becomes an extended mentorship of the young student outside the classroom. We're all familiar with movie pregnancies and Swanberg's treatment is refreshingly organic and honest avoiding familiar comic ground already treaded by broader films such as Knocked Up. Unfortunately, the honest and decent approach means a palpable lack of conflict threatens to soften the picture to the point of understated boredom, but the respect for the inherent drama and power of the miracle of life carries us through. 


Listen to Me Marlon (dir. Stevan Riley)

The enigmatic life, career and personality of the famed method actor gets the full biography treatment but told with a mesmerizing  poetic and languid visual and aural aesthetic. The story of Brando's life is well known, his education in acting from Stella Adler in New York, his early triumphs on stage and screen, his lulls in the 60's, his introduction to Tahiti and his new family in the South Pacific, the triumph of his civil rights causes and the tragedy of the deaths in his family. Riley admirably lays down connective tissues between all of these aspects of his life and career to his enigmatic personality traits. As told through Brando's own self recordings the form even connects to his ruminating self styled performance in Apocalypse Now. The effect is hypnotic, lyrical and ethereal, the best kind of treatment for such an interesting man.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Sundance 2015 - Day Three


Dope (dir. Rick Famuyiwa)

Bursting with joyous cinematic energy, colour, pop music, pop culture we can't help compare Dope to the energy and verve of the first films of Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Dope finds us cheering for three n'er do well high school geeks trying to make it through a south central LA high school. In particular Malcolm (Shameik Moore) who continually fights against gang culture, racism, and in general low expectations from his teachers. But Malcolm wants to go to Harvard. How is he going to do it? Of course it's dope. Famuyiwa drags us through roller coaster ride through LA in the same way Tarantino directed us in Pulp Fiction. Like these other filmmakers Famuyiwa takes pleasure in his cinematic diversions - each individual scene, through comic tone, editing and the gorgeous cinematography are crafted with the attention of their own little films. This is the work of great cinema.


Slow West (dir. John Maclean)

Despite being lightyears removed from the American frontier the allure of the venerable American genre attracts all filmmakers for all nationalities. Maclean's British/Kiwi Western uses the simple yet effective concept of a young man traversing the land looking to reunite with the lost love. As a lovesick Scot right off the boat, Kodi Smit-McPhee's meek naïveté to the environment is matched by the grizzled pessimism of his guide played by Michael Fassbender (doing his best as the John Wayne lone gunman archetype). Idiosyncratic characters and humour differentiate the film the classical form, but part of the thrill of the genre are the expected conventions. The whole unfortunately is not greater than the sum of its part, resulting in an admirable but not memorable entry of the genre.


Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Baumbach's roll of success continues. Once again matching up with her muse Greta Gerwig both as a star and cowriter Mistress America continues the examination of New York twenty/thirty something urbanites struggling to find self-satisfaction in the New York City hipster scene. If anything Gerwig is a another version of Adam Driver's character is When We Were Young, a scenester-extraordinaire with impressively eclectic tastes but a smokescreen to her deep rooted anxieties. We see Gerwig through the eyes of Lola Kirke her younger soon-to-be step sister and frightened Columbia student. Just like the idolization Ben Stiller gave Driver, Kirke sees Gerwig as the epitome of success and confidence. Gradually Gerwig's veneer dissolves over an entrepreneurial restaurant venture which goes sour. Comic dialogue flies fast and furious in the tradition of 30's screwball comedies. The throwback synth score and 80's rock, like Frances Ha, brings us back to career comedies of the 80's. Mistress America is not necessarily more accessible or conventional than Baumbach's previous two picture but more impressively neatly fitted into his cinematic voice at this stage of his career. 

   

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sundance 2015 - Day Two


Glassland (dir. Gerard Barrett)

Unfortunately in terms of audience expectation Irishman Gerard Barrett's Glassland suffers from a somewhat misleading logline, "In a desperate attempt to reunite with his broken family, our young taxi driver becomes entangled in the criminal underworld." The criminal element is a minor part of this film which only rears its head in the final moments. At best Glassland carries on the tradition of British kitchen sink films, albeit Ireland here, but still a vivid depiction of characters struggling to make ends meets amid the demoralizing plague of alcoholism. In this case it's Toni Collette as the alcoholic mother of Jack Reynor's character, himself a humble cab driver so desperate to clean up his mother and, as the logline asserts, reunite his family. A slow pace without much proactivity from its hero there's that sense of us waiting for something to happen. We separately want Reynor to delve into this underworld proclaimed by the logline, but the sympathetic portrayal of the doomed mother and the heroic son engage us. Barrett thankfully lifts us out of the squalor with a strong dose of optimism even at the film's bleakest moments. There's also a minor discovey of a potential star in newbie Jack Reynor.


James White (dir. Josh Mond)

It's the Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon show for this intense mother-son pic. As the title character it's a major showcase for Abbott, a supporting actor, always interesting thanks in large part to his glossy but deeply penetrating eyes. He carries this picture and then some as a miscreant on a downward trajectory of self destruction. Ironically its the illness of his mother which brings him out of oblivion and might just get him on the straight and narrow. Director Josh Mond, in first five minutes or so never leaves Abbott's face in full frame closeup. Thankfully he relaxes to a more traditional visual approach but this opening signals the risky adventurousness of his story and point of view. 

Sundance 2015 - Day One







It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)


The economic simplicity of John Carpenter's horror classics seem to be the raisin d'être of this picture. The scenario is identified accurately in the title. Imagine an entity/monster/ghost/zombie following you forever, never stopping until you're dead. Mitchell combines the deadly unstoppable force of Michael Myers, Yul Brynner's robot gunslinger from Westworld and hell, why not, The Terminator to arrive at a monster as terrifying as all of them. As much as Mitchell wants to freak you out he wants to bring us all back to the nostalgia of the 80's when these films were in vogue. Mitchell's previous film Myth of the American Sleepover was an honest melancholy teen throwback picture and It Follows admirably finds the same kind of gentle honesty, helped in part by his marvellous company of actors used in both films as well as a delicious electronic Carpenter-esque score.


Stockholm, Pennsylvania (dir. Nikole Beckwith)

Imagine the most nightmarish scenario, the kidnapping of your child and then pile on another nightmare, the return of that child years later only to find her not accepting your own love as a parent. This is the starting and ending point for Beckwirth's psychological brain teaser. Based on a play Beckwith constrains the story to mostly a mother/daughter journey anchored by a raucous tete a tete of actors Saorise Ronan and Cynthia Nixon. Unfortunately the experience is more frustrating than intriguing. We understand and sympathize with the dilemma of the mother and father not being able to connect with their daughter but a ludicrous turn of the story in the second half pushes dramatic irony passed the point of plausibility. That said the film might intrigue those caught up by the caustic mother/son conflict in We Need to Talk About Kevin.


Ten Thousand Saints (dir. Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)

It would be impossible to describe the complex plotting and relationships of the half dozen characters in this delirious 80's set coming of age/ family dramedy. Springer-Berman/Pulcini's picture charts the journey of an anxious teenager (Asa Butterfield) born with a pot smoking deadbeat dad (Ethan Hawke) from his humble Vermont childhood home to a life on the road in a hardcore punk band with all sorts of teen pregnancy, drugs, death and abandonment part of the mix. The filmmakers elegantly move between comedy and melodrama but there's just too much going on to keep us focused and thus engaged.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Best of 2014

So here's the unscientific best of the year. With a couple of exceptions the common thread of this crop is clearly the cynicism and darkness which each of these filmmakers brought to the screen. Sure Boyhood was an admirable narrative exercise and sure, The Imitation Game and Theory of Everything were handsome but forgettable biopics, but these ten pictures were the most memorable for me because they either challenged traditional genres, executed age-old genres to perfection or simply projected unique cinematic voices with panache better than anyone else.

FOXCATCHER
Dir. Bennett Miller
Miller's methodical account of the relationship between Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz and his deranged benefactor John Du Pont haunts long after the picture stops 'rolling'. A fascinating character study of disparate people - Schultz the blue collar athlete wrestling in his brother's shadow and Du Pont the man-child hermetically sealed in his Foxcatcher compound - a bold exercise in sustained nail-biting tension, Foxcatcher works brilliantly on multiple thematic levels, class, patriotism, sports and American history. No film stuck more with me than this.

WHIPLASH
Dir. Damien Chazelle
Sure there’s kind of shameless exaggeration of performance, in particular JK Simmons’ pumped up rage which comes off as R Lee Ermey’s drill Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant character transplanted to a Juliard-like music school, and sure the theme of artistic desire and sacrifice for artistic perfection are hit a little hard on the nose, but Damien Chazelle’s laser-focused picture and harrowing journey of its hero is a force of nature impossible not be dazzled by. In fact, it’s a thrill ride of immense proportions. Cinematic bravura bursts from the picture's classically composed frames: gorgeous warm lighting complements the sense of history of the jazz numbers their artists play; dynamic editing, intrusive compositions, fetish-like close-ups of the Miles Teller’s drum kit and long extended takes of the kids ripping his skins creates a dynamic energy. And that showstopping ending puts all other films this year shame.

ENEMY
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Villeneuve’s beguiling Cronenberg –influenced headtripping doppelganger picture is playful cinematic fun. Consciously obtuse and aloof, Villenueve places us in a David Lynch-type world, in which narrative comprehension take a backseat to the thrill of mystery and mood. Jake Gyllenhaal’s double performance is as cold and absorbing as Jeremy Irons’ double-duty in Dead Ringers. As mirror images of one another, there isn’t much to distinguish one another other than how Gyllenhaal's carries each character. It’s one of two remarkable performances this year from arguably the most interesting actor working today. Villeneuve’s probing camera and methodical pace draws into the deranged psychosis of both characters. I have my own theories of what the recurring spider motif means, and the nature of their seemingly mirror-image duality, but you won’t get this explanation here. Have fun figuring it out yourself.

SNOWPIERCER
Dir. Bong Joon-Ho
What a beautiful concoction this picture is. The familiar apocalyptic scenario played out on a train ride around the world, and seen through the deranged lens of Korean genre cinema master Bong Joon Ho. Last year’s English-language debut for Chan-wook Park (Stoker) showed the potential of the cross-culture mélange of Korean and American cinema. Here Snowpiercer achieves a kind of genre perfection, finding inspired freshness in the bloated post-apocalyptic set up. Robust and creative action sequences compliment the sharp sense of humour, elements all working in sync with the well thought out high concept scenario.

BLUE RUIN
Dir. Jeremy Saulnier
Imagine a threadbare version of Taken, replacing the righteous Liam Neeson hero with a meek and utterly frightened but intensely focused suburban everyman. And instead of the martial arts hand to hand skills of Neeson, an equally impressive common sense guile. With these stripped down elements Blue Ruin triumphs as a white knuckle revenge-thriller as tense as any of its kind.

NIGHTCRAWLER
Dir. Dan Gilroy
Influenced by the anti-heroic De Niro/Scorsese creations of Travis Bickle and Ruper Pupkin, Jake Gyllenhaal's socially awkward ne'er-do-well who finds his calling as an immoral ambulance-chasing paparazzi is a fascinating train wreck character. Gilroy's colourful Los Angeles-based cinematography (most of which takes place at night) is a delightful throwback to the seedy Hollywood of old.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Dir. Wes Anderson

After fifteen years we almost take for granted the inspired diorama-like constructed imagery of Anderson's pictures. The idiosyncratic off-the-wall characters existing in a fairytale like world of their own are also well-entrenched in our pop-culture awareness. But I'm convinced years after Anderson's career has ended collectively we'll wonder how this guy never fully received his due as one of the most unique voices in cinema history. Grand Budapest Hotel represents a high-water mark for his mid-career renaissance. Without Owen Wilson as co-writer Anderson seems to have embraced even more imaginative worlds and elaborate forms of storytelling. Hotel's decades-spanning narrative is a tall-tale fantasy bursting with everything in Wes Anderson's arsenal we take for granted.

GONE GIRL
Dir. David Fincher
If you were to simply describe the plot of Gillian Flynn’s pulpy bestseller it would come off as an outrageous Joe Eszterhas-style potboiler ripped from the era of early 90’s sexual thrillers. But when orchestrated by a master of the genre, at the top of his game, where other filmmakers would have made this picture into a sloppy ham-fisted mess, David Fincher makes two and half hours a completely engrossing experience, terrifying and witty in equal measure and self-aware enough not to take itself too seriously.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Dir. James Gunn
The shared universe of the Avengers/Marvel series has resulted in a television-like homogenization of its films. It's impossible to find any kind of directorial authorship in any of the Iron Man, Captain Avengers or Thor films. Guardians is the anomaly and arguably the reason the little-known comic property became a late summer sensation. James Gunn's sardonic sense of humour and his Star Wars era sense of adventure represents a refreshing throwback and a burst of energy to the bloated super hero genre.

CHEAP THRILLS
Dir. E.L. Katz
This genre winner sparked a minor bidding war after its raucous SXSW premiere. Katz's slice of soul sucking cinematic nastiness applies some of the direct moral questions from say, Adrian Lyne's Indecent Proposal to a pulpy midnight film. David Koechner as a diabolical wealthy games maker challenging blue collar bar buddies Pat Healy and Ethan Embry to a game of high stakes dare. In their pursuit of the cold hard cash the meek family man Healy is tested to the limits, and the fringe criminal Embry who would seem to have the upper hand in the endeavour finds himself matched test for test. While the escalation of violence is comical in its excessiveness, the rock solid performances are humane and believable. At its best Cheap Thrills is a scathing inditement of American capitalism and the American dream.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Bard’s tale of the ambitious Scottish lord who with his wife conspire to take the throne of Scotland by hook or crook has always made for great cinema. It’s one of the more violent and action-packed of Shakespeare plays and through the eye of Roman Polanski, at the peak of his abilities, turns the story into a ruthless and bloody parable of ambition - a film even more resonant with the Charles Manson tragedy only a couple years behind this production.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Gone Girl

If you were to simply describe the plot of Gillian Flynn’s pulpy bestseller it would come off as an outrageous Joe Eszterhas-style potboiler ripped from the era of early 90’s sexual thrillers. But when orchestrated by a master of the genre, at the top of his game, where other filmmakers would have made this picture into a sloppy ham-fisted mess, David Fincher makes two and half hours a completely engrossing experience, terrifying and witty in equal measure and self-aware enough not to take itself too seriously.