Tuesday, 31 July 2007
A Clockwork Orange ((1971) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee
My mom hates “A Clockwork Orange” so much that watching it in our house was the equivalent of watching porn. If my brother and I heard my mom arriving home we would quickly shut the VCR off and hide the box. “A Clockwork Orange” is disturbing to say the least. It portrays as the hero a man who brutally rapes and assaults women, and someone we feel sorry for when his life turns to shambles during his rehabilitation. What makes the character of Alex Delarge and his droogie-droogs so appealing (to some)? Morbid fascination with the dark side of life, the filmmaking skills of Stanley Kubrick, our own subconscious carnal desires?
Alex Delarge is the prototypical anti-hero, like Paul Muni in “Scarface”, James Cagney in “White Heat”, Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle etc. Alex lives in non-descript near-future London - a society in decrepit decline, where gangs run wild and terrorize local citizens largely unabated. In the impressive opening shot Kubrick frames Alex’s gang, the Droogs, drinking spiked milk in a milkbar adorned with lude images of naked women. We then see their night play out in a series of assaults, fights, rapes all for the joy of doing it for the sake of doing it – a lash of the “ultraviolence.”
Alex’s parents are completely oblivious to this behaviour even though he’s been in trouble before. He’s looked after by his parole officer Mr. Deltoid – a man who has grown sick and tired of Alex’s beligerant behaviour. But Alex trips up and is set up by his fellow droogs to be caught by the police during a home invasion. While in prison, hoping to get his sentence reduced, he volunteers for a new scientific technique to cleanse criminals of their need to commit crimes. Alex goes through the rigorous process and comes out a rehabilitated man. But the process backfires and results in near madness for Alex who can’t cope with the pain caused by the suppression of his desires. The film ends in the most ironic twist, vilifying the government for pushing Alex to suicide and canonizing Alex as the hero.
The film is a perfect adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novella. In fact it’s the closest a book could come to its film version. Some of the dialogue is word for word as it is in the book. Part of the appeal of the film is the narrator, Alex himself, who tells his story from his point of view. Like Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” we can learn to love Alex because we’re put inside his brain, however twisted. Malcolm McDowell portrays Alex as sincere, innocent and extremely likeable. His emotions are ours, and so when he’s beating up Mr. Alexander while his wife is being raped and singing “Singing in the Rain”, it’s actually humorous. My mom would differ of course.
This is Stanley Kubrick at the top of his game. The courage and skill to tackle this story and make it monetarily successful is a miracle. The film was one of the highest grossing films of 1971, and the highest grossing film for Warner Bros that year. Remarkable considering the graphic sex, rape and violence. Rumours abound that Stanley Kubrick banned the film from exhibition for years in Britain after a series of copycat criminal acts. In fact, Kubrick requested that Warners withdraw the film after threats were made to himself and his family. In any case, the UK ban latest the rest Kubrick’s life – 27 years.
Kubrick uses his familiar cinematic techniques to great effect once again. The opening shot is famous for gliding back from Alex’s close-up all the way to the back of the Corova Milkbar revealing the graphic images on the walls and the disaffected self-centered clientele. The music was ahead of its time as well. Wendy Carlos’ synthesized Beethoven score was the first of its kind for a mainstream film. The lighting and design of the film is sparse. Kubrick contrasts a mainly flat look with bright, punchy burst of colour. Sometimes a costume, or a wig, a chair or the brilliant opening and closing credit sequences.
Even though I’m 32 I feel guilty even writing this review. My mom would not approve. I hope she doesn’t read this. Several times I’ve tried to explain the artistic value of Kubrick’s masterpiece – after all “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of her favourite films – but it always fell upon deaf ears. That’s the prophetic power of the art – to divide its audience into polar opposites. We miss you Stanley. Doobie doop.
Buy it here: A Clockwork Orange
Monday, 30 July 2007
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1999) dir. Guy Ritchie
Starring: Jason Statham, Jason Flemyng, Nick Moran, Vinnie Jones
“Lock, Stocking and Two Smoking Barrels” is one of the fastest, funnier, and more enjoyable ways to spend an hour and a half of your time. It’s essentially a classic comedy of errors, with lots of guns, swearing and bloodshed. It has a loopy, Byzantine plot, constructed like a rat race for the dozen characters or so running through a complex maze all looking for the cheese at the end.
The cheese at the end of this race is either one three things – a half a million pounds - cash, several dozen bags of premium grow-op weed, or two antique long-barreled rifles. The chief protagonists, Eddie, Bacon, Tom and Soap are a group of petty criminals who get fucked over in a card game which was supposed to net them thousands of dollars of money. Instead the leader, Eddie (Nick Moran), loses £500,000, which he has only one week to pay back. Like traditional comedies of errors, the solution comes to them by accident – next door, a pathetic group of potheads have grown and harvested more than enough weed to play back Eddie’s loan. When they overhear another group of thugs planning to steal their stash, they decide ambush the thieves and make off with the weed themselves.
Of course things don’t go as planned as they try to sell the weed to the same gangsters who operated the grow-op. Things just get more and more twisted as each group of gangsters cross and intersect each other in hopes of claiming the big score. Lots of bodies and bullets pile up in the process.
The star of the film is the plot, and it really is a work of art. It’s virtually airtight and holds up remarkably well without obvious exposition. But the plot wouldn’t be worth anything if it weren’t for the colourful actors who inhabit their colourful characters. Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham shine the brightest and both of them have gone on to successful careers as low-rent action heavies. In fact, I think Statham has created a subgenre unto himself – the “Jason Statham” action film (“The Transporter”, “Crank” and the upcoming “War”).
Though the plot is complex Ritchie keeps the storytelling simple by relying strictly on plot instead of character development. “Lock, Stock” is old school in the Melville or Dassin school of crime filmmaking. Our protagonists’ journey is motivated by money. There’s no token emotional character arcs or love interests. In fact there’s only one female character in the film, though ironically, she is given perhaps the most bad-ass of scenes to play – mowing down a set of thieves with a massive machine gun.
Guy Ritchie amps up the style with a variety of shooting speeds, odd camera angles, funky music, flashbacks and interconnecting storylines. Though many of his frames are inspired by the Tarantino/Woo school of 90’s filmmaking, the film rarely feels tired or derivative. Perhaps it’s the English hooliganness of it.
As a comedy of errors in the crime genre the film owes a lot to Martin Brest’s “Midnight Run”, and ZAZ’s “Ruthless People”. In both these films the actions of our heroes are driven by happy accidents, sloppy mistakes and mistaken identities. “Lock Stock is no exception”, and Ritchie does at least one thing right in his screenplay, he puts more than enough obstacles in front of his heroes.
Watching “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” with some hot coffee and a bagel was the perfect Sunday morning today. It exercised my eyes, ears and brain enough to kickstart me for the day, but not too much to give me a headache or a hangover. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (Widescreen Edition)
Sunday, 29 July 2007
Clockers (1995) dir. Spike Lee
Starring: Mekhi Pfifer, Harvey Keitel, Isaiah Washington, Delroy Lindo
Spike Lee has never made a bad film, but time and time again his films are released and dismissed and disappear and unjustly forgotten. “Clockers” is one of those films. It’s the story of a project community in Brooklyn infected with the plague of crack cocaine dealers and users and how one man is caught in the middle of the inner city war on drugs.
The film opens by introducing two brothers Strike (Mekhi Pfifer) and Victor (Isaiah Washington). Victor is the responsible one – a wife, two kids, two steady jobs; Strike is a drug hustler (or “Clocker”) who works under local heavy Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo). When the night manager of a local fast-food restaurant is found shot dead, Victor takes the rap, claiming self-defense. This confession doesn’t sit well with police detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) who thinks Victor is covering up for his irresponsible brother. Rocco’s partner Larry Mazilli (John Turturro) is content with accepting the confession and quickly moving on, but Rocco is determined to nail Strike.
Strike’s life becomes threatened when Rodney learns about the cops’ interest in Strike. Suddenly his business becomes jeopardized. Strike continues to proclaim his innocence, but to Rodney he doesn’t need a judge and jury to decide what’s best for him. Meanwhile the community which includes good hard-working families like Victor’s is shaken up and torn apart by the crackheads, dealers, and deaths which result from the events.
The film is based on a novel by Richard Price and the screenplay is co-written by Price and Lee. Lee juggles a dozen interesting characters and subplots and interweaves them without losing the narrative drive of the film. And the film never feels like a crime investigation film, or a whodunit. The relationship of Victor and Strike is strong. They have a couple of terrific scenes together. Both Mekhi Pfifier and Isaiah Washington give ‘star-making’ performances. Washington has great range as an actor. Contrasting his family-devoted community man character in this film with, say, his gangsta-heavy characters in “Bulworth” and “Out of Sight” makes that clear. Mekhi Pfifer plays his messed up brother with great depth. He can talk the talk and be “down” like the rest of his homies, but beneath his kissing death and swearing there’s a wounded soul. And when you see him playing with his Lionel train sets his soft introspective side comes out.
Strike also has an interesting relationship with a local kid, Tyrone. Tyrone looks up to Strike and Strike recognizes the path Tyrone’s taking in his youth. At times Strike enjoys the adulation Tyrone has for him and at times he scolds him for it. This type of relationship is not new territory for this type of film, but with the state of urban violence in a city like mine (Toronto) it’s never been more relevant.
Spike Lee knows how to deliver a good speech. Delroy Lindo, one of the great character actors working today has a great role, and is given a great speech when he pontificates so eloquently on the ‘beauty’ of crack. Another great speech is given to local crack dealer Errol Barnes who gives his own take on the addictive nature of drugs.
As usual with Lee’s films, it’s visually stunning. Shot by Lee’s frequent collaborator Malik Hassan Sayeed, the film uses a variety of visual styles. The interrogation scene channels the hot overhead lighting technique of Robert Richardson, but his daytime scenes use a saturated overexposed and grainy look to it. Sayeed blows out his skies leaving a permanently white background. This isolates the community from the outside world since we can’t see anything in the background except the project buildings and a plain white sky. And though the cinematography is in your face so is every character in the film so the effect certainly isn’t distracting.
“Clockers” was the first pairing of the two great New York filmmakers - Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese (as producer). And although Scorsese lends frequent player Harvey Keitel to Lee, Scorsese doesn’t overtly put his own stamp on the film. The film remains Lee’s from beginning to end. Lately I’m looking back at Spike’s older films and in many ways rediscovering a great filmmaker alive and working in his prime. And it’s a joy. Let’s give him the respect he deserves. After you see “Do the Right Thing”, pop in “Clockers”, you will enjoy.
Buy it here: Clockers
Here’s a very intense scene:
Saturday, 28 July 2007
Renaissance (2006) dir. Christian Volckman
Voices by: Daniel Craig, Romolo Garai, Jonathan Pryce
“Renaissance” is one of those bold visual experiments that looks astonishing in short bursts but fails in the necessities of feature length film. It’s a stunning anime/noir film that uses CGI and Motion Capture technologies to create a unique high contrast B&W look. “Renaissance” suffers mostly in content and keeping our attention beyond the novelty of the form.
Set in Paris 2054, Ilona Tasuiev, a scientist working for a beauty and cosmetics company, Avalon, is kidnapped outside of a nightclub. Police detective Barthelemy Karas is hired by Avalon to find her. Karas befriends and falls in love with Ilona’s sister Bislane and so the search becomes more personal to him. Karas’ gumshoing uncovers a corporate conspiracy and unethical scientific practices that go back 50 years. They involve genetic manipulation of children in hopes of finding a cure for aging. Illona was at the centre of this research and was on the cusp of completing the quest for eternal life.
As Karas learns more of Ilona’s importance to the company, Avalon turns on him and target’s Karas. Knowing the information Ilona possesses and the ramifications for the human race Karas is faced with life or death ethical questions as well as the promises he made to Bislane, all of which he must reconcile.
The plot in “Renaissance” get convoluted very quickly. Both the look and story are inspired by Japanese anime – specifically “Akira”. I have to admit I’m not the biggest anime fan, and “Akira” certainly went over my head. And the same goes for much of “Renaissance’s” plot. I still don’t know why Ilona’s was kidnapped – even Wikipedia couldn’t supply a satisfying answer.
But “Renaissance” is anchored in its remarkable visual design. It’s a mash of “Sin City”, “Akira”, “A Scanner Darkly” and “Blade Runner”. In fact, “Renaissance” resembles most Frank Miller’s artwork in the original Sin City graphic novel. There are no shades of grey in “Renaissance” just the hard contrast of black and white. While it looks fabulous, there are many tradeoffs. Everything is in focus, so depth is lost in the contrast. Volckman tries to make up for that by moving his camera. These moments are great, but the lack of depth means it is very diffcult to know where to look at in the frame. It wasn’t until 15 or 20 mins into the film where I could actually recognize characters by their face. Rarely do we see an entire character’s face. Because there’s no grey we only ever see a highlight or rim of a character’s facial features.
The film contains a few short action sequences. A couple of gun battles, one car chase and one running chase is about all we get. This was disappointing considering the opportunity the technology presents to create enormously creative and dynamic sequences we’ve never seen before. Volckman envisions a really cool and interesting Paris, specifically the glass enclosures which surround much of the city, but much more of that design could have been exploited with respect to the action. Volckman seems to be too much into the hardboiled aspects of the plot, which actually bog the film down instead of entertaining us. The film is for the videogame generation and so gamers out there need their senses excersised.
“Renaissance” would have worked much better as a short film where the effect of the brilliant design stays with you throughout the film. “Renaissance” joins “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” and “Final Fantasy” as anime experiments that are more easily admired than enjoyed.
Buy it here: Renaissance
Friday, 27 July 2007
The Natural (1984) dir. Barry Levinson
Starring: Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Robert Duvall
“The Natural” is the best of its kind, a sports film that mythologizes America’s pastime into something beyond the bat and ball. The story of Rob Hobbs’ journey from youthful talent to failed talent to resurrection is indeed the stuff of legend and myth and could be a chapter in a Joseph Campbell book.
Rob Hobbs (Robert Redford) is introduced at an early age as a prodigious talent. Somewhere in the American Midwest (where American myths are born) during a county fair Hobbs gets roped into a bet that he can pitch three strikes to a Babe Ruth-esque baseball superstar. Of course Hobbs is reluctant but is eventually persuaded into the challenge. Hobbs strikes him out and thus the myth is born. But before Hobbs can launch his career though he is shot by a crazed seductress fan (Barbara Hershey).
The film moves forward 16 years to tell the tale of Hobbs’ comeback as an older man way past his prime. He walks into the dugout of the New York Knights claiming he’s been brought up from the minors. Hobbs makes the team but isn’t allowed to play, until he’s pinch hits for the team superstar. Hobbs literally takes the cover off the ball in his first big league hit. Hobbs quickly turns into a superstar player. But with the highs come the lows. His affair with one of the wives of the players gives him ‘bad luck’ and suffers near-season-ending losing streak. It isn’t until his old flame from the past Iris (Glenn Close) returns to his life, sparks his talent and reignites the team to victory.
“The Natural” is based on a 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud, and one his inspirations was the story of Percival and the Court of King Arthur. A boy from a talented pedigree takes a journey over the course of his life. He ends up in a wasteland presided by a dying king. Pop Fisher (like “the Fisher King”) is the coach of the team. He miraculously heals the team (and Fisher’s athlete’s foot) and turns them into a winner. Etc etc. The allegory to Percival doesn’t make the film great, it’s the heart and earnestness that it wears on its sleeve that is the reason to watch the film. If Frank Capra made a sports film, it would have been this.
Hobbs’ first hit is so thoroughly enjoyable, the smile on my face hurt my cheeks. Much of it is due in part to Randy Newman’s grand music score which accompanies all of Hobbs’ key moments. The simple cue is a just a few notes but it’s so effective it’s become synonymous with miraculous moments in all sports. Even now, it’s still a powerful piece of music.
“The Natural” is one of Barry Levinson’s best films as well. It was Levinson’s second film and it’s great second film – one which expands and builds upon the personal work of his first film (“Diner”) and showed everyone he’s a real filmmaker capable of telling a great story. His shot selection, framing and direction on Caleb Deschanel’s lighting creates the mythological nature of the film. Watch how he frames Glenn Close in the film. Her character, Iris Gaines, is supposed to be Hobb’s saviour and the one who brings him and the team out of despair. She is shot with supreme backlit angelic beauty. Her white hat even glows like an angel’s halo. It’s so overt and obvious, but it’s in keeping with the tone of the film, so it works tremendously. Levinson shoots and edits the baseball scenes superbly as well. The final climatic game should be a case study in extending and lengthening real time for a heightened cinematic reality. The final minute of real time in the final game is edited into about 5 minutes of screen time with just the right shots to get the biggest bang for its buck. And what a bang that is.
It’s easy to criticize the film. It’s overacted, overshot, overedited, and overscored. But it’s a film that establishes and plays within these rules from the outset and so it becomes a genre unto its own – the mythological sports film. I don’t care who you are, the final scene from beginning to end as Hobb’s rounds those bases, I guarantee, will put shivers down to your spine. Enjoy.
Buy it here: The Natural (Director's Cut)
Here’s Hobbs in batting practice:
And here Hobb's grand finale:
Thursday, 26 July 2007
Hudson Hawk (1991) dir. Michael Lehman
Starring: Bruce Willis, Danny Aiello
Gotta love the tagline:
Catch the Excitement
Catch the Adventure
Catch the Hawk
I never saw “Hudson Hawk” when it was originally released, and so when it came on Bravo! or TBS or something I thought I’d finally see what all the fuss was about waaaay back in 1991. That year it received three Razzies for Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay and Worst Director. With this in mind I thought I could perhaps help rediscover the film and say… “hey ‘Hudson Hawk’ isn’t all that bad, it’s actually pretty good.” But I can’t. Hudson Hawk really is that terrible.
The film opens with a ridiculous flashback to the mid 1500’s where we see Leonardo Da Vinci working on several of his famous inventions, including a precious gold making device. Cut to 400 years later, Bruce Willis Ernie “Hudson Hawk” Hawkins a working-class-charming safe cracker recently released from prison. His best friend and partner in crime/mentor is Tommy Five-Tone (Danny Aiello). Immediately upon Hawk’s release he’s blackmailed by his own parole officer into doing another heist. He performs the deed using his trademark style – in time and sync with his favourite crooners. Set to the Bing Crosby diddy, “Swinging on a Star”, Hawk and Two-Tone, sing and dance their way out of the building successfully with the Da Vinci device we saw in the flashback.
Suddenly some government agents (one of whom is a skinny David Caruso) show up at an art auction who chase Willis down, kidnap him and blackmail him into stealing some more priceless art. Somewhere in the mix are Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhart (the only one who is watchable) who are also after Da Vinci’s inventions.
This is where I stopped watching and erased it from my PVR.
I didn’t need to see the rest of the film to realize the film is as bad as it’s purported to be. Is it bad enough to have Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello, neither of whom can really carry a tune, sing and dance their way through some of the most famous museums in the world? The action in the film is a cartoon slapstick mash-up. Though calling it ‘cartoonish’ would actually be insulting to the great works of Chuck Jones. The ambulance chase sequence is quite laughable for the wrong reasons (see youtube clip below). So let’s just call it crap.
The film was directed by Michael Lehman, who was already a cult favourite for making “Heathers”. He completely sold out with “Hawk”. And he never did recover fully either - among his next films were “Air Heads” and “My Giant”. Bruce Willis is the only one to fault though. It was a vanity project from the start – he even gets a ‘story by’ credit.
BTW: I also didn’t get the whole candy bar theme of the film. The government agent characters are named “Almond Joy”, “Snickers”, Butterfinger” and “Kit Kat”.
Though I can’t imagine why, but I assume “Hudson Hawk” probably has some sort of minor obsessive fan base that probably enjoys the humour and carefree attitude of the film. So there might be some angry comments. But for everyone else, I’m sorry I had to blog about this film. Tomorrow’s will be better. I promise.
Oh yeah Frank Stallone is also in it. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Hudson Hawk
Here’s the ambulance scene:
Wednesday, 25 July 2007
The Rainmaker (1997) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Matt Damon, Danny De Vito, Jon Voight, Claire Danes, Mickey Rourke
In 1997 Francis Coppola surprised us all with an adaptation of a John Grisham novel – one of the pulpier novelists of the 1990’s that produced a series of safe but saccharine courtroom thrillers. “The Rainmaker” is as enjoyable yet disposable as most of the Grisham adaptation. Though it doesn’t hit the high bar of “The Firm” in terms of suspense or tension, it does best the Schumacher films - “A Time to Kill” or “The Client” and is one of the better Grisham adaptations.
Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) is a recent grad from a humble state college. With no prospects for employment he takes the only job he can get, chasing ambulances for a slimy lawyer/loan shark/bail bondsman-type Bruiser Stone played to perfection by Mickey Rourke. Rudy’s ‘mentor’ is Deck Shiflet (Danny De Vito) a paralegal who’s failed the bar five times. Though Deck doesn’t have the official license to practice law his street smarts allow him to weasel into situations and gain information needed to conduct business and make money.
When Bruiser's practice comes under investigation Baylor and Shiflet split to form their own firm. Their only case is something Rudy stumbled upon while in school – the case of Donny Ray Black, a 22 year old kid suffering from Leukemia whose frequent insurance claims for treatment keep getting denied. Baylor and Shiflet become the David vs. the Goliath insurance company super lawyers headed by shyster Leo F. Drummand (Jon Voight).
The best moments in the film are in the opening act where Baylor is thrust into the sketchy world of guerilla lawyering and ambulance-chasing. The relationship of Baylor with Shiflet and Stone could have produced an interesting dynamic. Stone could have been a younger version of Baylor, Shiflet who got caught up in the scheming nature of the job lost all his passion for the job could have seen another version of himself in Baylor. The introduction of Baylor’s fish out of water into this environment could have produced more interesting character arcs for both Shiflet and Stone. Unfortunately Stone is taken out of the picture early and Shiflet ceases to become a character of his own and is virtually forgotten in terms of character development and change. This opportunityt is sorely missed.
Everything is focused on Baylor. His love interest, Kelly, played by Claire Danes, adds a bit too much drama onto his already stacked and stressful business plate. It’s hard to imagine nearly fighting to the death an angry boyfriend at night and coming to work the next day with the responsibility of trying the case for a grieving mother of a cancer victim. In fact, it’s completely irresponsible of Baylor to jeopardize the case for the acts he performs on behalf of Kelly.
The majority of the film is courtroom drama, and it suffers from all the same trappings of that genre. It’s very difficult to make the courtroom cinema-worthy even for considering the track record of Mr. Coppola.
From a craft point of view the film looks good without being overpowered in terms of cinematography. He smartly employs John Toll to shoot it instead of someone like Vittorio Storaro (who probably wouldn’t even take the job). I was pleased to see Coppola's trademark overlapping dissolves at the opening of the film. But I was disappointed by Elmer Bernstein’s score, a composer I’m very fond of, but this time he delivers something sounding like 70’s episodic television. And Michael Herr, who wrote the narration for “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket”, writes some functional and sometimes interesting voiceover.
I can only wonder what motivated Coppola to invest his time in this film. With his successful wine business keeping his cash flow positive and a cinematic legacy already written in stone it would appear Coppola could pick and choose his films. Maybe he was scarred from his wounds on the disastrous film “Jack” released the year before and needed to sharpen his skills again with some traditional material. Though "The Rainmaker" betters most of the other Grisham films, with Coppola his bar is always raised slightly higher and as a result it doesn’t quite hit it.
Buy it here: John Grisham's The Rainmaker (Special Collector's Edition)
Tuesday, 24 July 2007
The Bridge (2006) dir. Eric Steel
If you thought you’d seen it all before on film, you haven’t. “The Bridge” is a fascinating entry into the new era of documentary cinema. It tells the story of suicide jumpers who take their lives by leaping off San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate Bridge. The key element being that we actually see the jumpers. I know what you’re thinking catching a suicide attempt on camera is like shooting a random car accident. Read on…
The film opens with a series of serene images of one of the world’s most recognizable structures. Nothing we haven’t seen before, the majestic red towers, the massive cables, the various views from around the San Francisco Bay area. We then see a montage of various people walking across the bridge – tourists, locals, bridge workers - until the camera focuses on one person. He looks around then casually steps over the railing and plunges into the water. Not knowing what the film was about, I was shocked by the image.
In 2004 director Eric Steel assembled a team of camera operators to shoot the Golden Gate Bridge and capture on screen all the suicide jumpers that would take their own lives over the course of the year. The Golden Gate Bridge is the most “popular” place for suicides in North America, so Steel knew that if he put in the time and effort he could compile one of the most remarkable video journals ever created.
And so he did with “Bridge”. Steel used two extremely long lensed cameras to frame its subjects from far away and observe the last moments of their lives with unobtrusive objectivity. Every day for a year Steel and his team were out there roving the across the bridge looking for possible candidates. Most days produced nothing but wasted video tape, but eventually they caught sight the horrific events they came to witness. Sounds sick doesn’t it?
The jumping footage is the hook to draw you in, but the heart of the film are the fascinating individual stories of the jumpers –interviews with friends and family enlighten us on the personal stories that drove Steel’s subjects to suicide. The families are surprisingly candid and well-spoken considering the recency of the events. The most compelling is Kevin Hines, a good-looking and articulate twenty-something who has suffered from depression his whole life. The tale he has to tell is one of the most compelling interviews I’ve seen in a documentary.
“The Bridge” effectively focuses solely on its individual stories. Therefore we are saved the obligatory archival moments of the Bridge, or interviews with its architects or historians - if you want to see the history of the Bridge watch “Frontiers of Construction”. Steel keeps his music understated and quiet and doesn’t overwhelm us with drama, or sentimentality. Steel keeps it all matter-of-fact and doesn’t offer any solutions or help for people in the audience actually thinking of the suicide. Some might say it furthers the mystique of the bridge jumper, but clearly this is not “Faces of Death”, or even “Dateline NBC”. Steels appears to have justified any exploitation of their deaths in the most compelling and credible way.
As I sat in my home and watched it with my wife, there was complete silence for the duration of the film. It was only when it was over could we talk about it. It’s an experience. Enjoy.
PS. Don’t forget to watch the special features. There’s an interesting set of interviews with the cameramen and women who shot the footage.
Buy it here: The Bridge
Monday, 23 July 2007
M (1931) dir. Fritz Lang
Starring: Peter Lorre, Gustaf Gründgens, Otto Wernicke
Today is procedural crime thriller genre day at Daily Film Dose. With the release of “Zodiac” on DVD tomorrow, it’s a good time to revisit the original procedural crime film – “M”. As a culture the Germans are renowned for their organizational and record-keeping skills. So it’s only fitting that the genre was born by a German - Fritz Lang.
The film opens with a suspenseful sequence. A child killer is on the loose and a group of kids are playing a game in the street. A little girl sings a song pointing to each child to determine who is “it”. Like many of the nursery rhymes we were taught this one is particularly creepy. The song goes: “Just you wait, it won't be long. The man in black will soon be here. With his cleaver's blade so true, he'll make mincemeat out of YOU!” We don’t ever see the gruesome killings on screen, but this ominous bit of foreshadowing tells us enough.
The little girl singing the song does disappear at the cruel maniacal hands of our killer. His name is Hans Beckett (Peter Lorre), an innocent-looking baby-faced psycho. He’s clearly demented, but not in a Silence of the Lambs-Buffalo Bill or Manhunter-Francis Dollarhyde way, Beckett is portrayed as a man with an innocent conscience but plagued by his demented desires. The police investigation is run by Inspector Lohman (Gustaf Gründgens). Lang shows the nuts and bolts of the investigation, including now-overused visuals as the radial mapping of the killer’s movements, montage-style scenes of searches and questioning, and psychoanalytic descriptions of the killer’s psyche. Lohman’s search goes far and wide, and eventually they hit the speakeasies and underground gambling layers of the city’s criminals. After a raid on one of the city’s most popular and notorious hangouts the film shifts to the point of view of the criminal underground. The criminals decide to take the matter into their own hands and find the killer themselves. And so begins a parallel but more effective investigation.
The search and capture of Beckett in the city office building is a brilliant sequence which stands up to today’s cat-and-mouse thrillers. Lang makes an interesting editing choice after this scene by shifting back to the police and their interrogation of one of the ‘burglars’ of the building. He doesn’t cut back to Beckett until 10-15mins later. Lang builds suspense during this time by delaying our satisfaction and hiding Beckett from the audience. The final interrogation and underworld trial of Beckett is a classic scene and a virtuoso performance from Lorre.
Fritz Lang was at the top of his game. The introduction of Beckett produces a wonderful shot showing the man’s shadow entering frame over top of his wanted poster on the street pole. This is one just of many fabulous cinematic moments in the film. There’s a fabulous long take in the cigar factory which takes the camera around the room and through a window into a delicatessen and into another room and finishes by introducing us to Shranker the underworld boss. This one shot describes the criminal network of “beggars” which Shranker will use to catch Beckett. It’s interesting to note there are long stretches in the film where no sound is used. “M” was Lang’s first sound film and even with the new toy at his disposal Lang uses silence as effectively as he uses sound. These silences are carefully placed as a way of building suspense.
The most important moment in the film is the finale and Peter Lorre’s dramatic confession. Lang condemns vigilantism and emphasizes the need for lawful justice no matter how desperate the circumstances. Since the film was made in 1931, just before the rise of Nazism, it may or may not have been a metaphor for the infamous Nazi Gestapo tactics. Either way, it continues to be a powerful statement relevant to all societies yesterday and today.
Buy it here: M - Criterion Collection
Zodiac (2007) dir. David Fincher
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo
On DVD tomorrow is “Zodiac”. It's David Fincher’s second turn at the serial killer genre, but this one differs because it’s based on real events. As a result, the film isn’t about dramatic manipulation or exploitation instead it’s a lengthy examination of the uncovering of the facts very much akin to “All the President’s Men” (see my previous review).
From 1969 to 1979, the Zodiac killer terrorized the San Francisco Bay area with a series of random and indiscriminate murders. The killer had no modus operandi or motive, and, as a result, the killings remained unsolved for a long time. The film, event-by-event, recounts the hours, days and years spent by the cops and reporters involved with the case.
The first half of the film deals with the first 5 years of the case and centres on the chief detectives, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards (good to see him back on the big screen) and the newspaper reporters writing about the case, Robert Downey Jr. (Robert Avery). In the background but uninvolved, is Jake Gyllenhaal, a cartoonist (Robert Graysmith) who silently observes the case over people’s shoulders.
The depiction of the murders are grisly – though not as gruesome or dramatic as “Seven,” but perhaps more terrifying knowing that they actually occurred. The point of view is always with the facts of the case, and therefore we only see the killer during the killing scenes. As a result, he remains a mysterious figure throughout the film and when the police confront a potential suspect, we, the audience, judge their faces and unconscious actions as if we’re the investigators as well.
The second half of the film centres on the obsessive “JFK”-style reinvestigation of the case in the latter 70’s by Graysmith (who went on to write 2 true-crime bestsellers). With the killer dormant, the case had remained unsolved, but without new evidence no one is rushing to pursue it. As Ruffalo’s character says, there have been 200 murders since the last Zodiac killing, why should he devote his attention away from these? So why is Graysmith pursuing the case? What’s his angle? Is it for justice, or is it because, as he says, he likes solving puzzles?
The compression of time would seem to present a challenge, as the film jumps through the weeks, months and years with speed. Traditional methods of identifying new time periods are thrown away in favor of a simple on-screen text like “three weeks later”, or “3 years later.” The characters don’t change, nor should they have to. They are real people and professionals at their jobs and it all works.
“Zodiac” is one of the most purely procedurals films ever made. The film doesn’t shy away from bombarding the audience with too much information (aka ‘exposition’ which is considered ‘lazy’ screenwriting). But as with “All the President’s Men,” the facts, or in this case, the evidence, are as important as the characters in the film.
"Zodiac" runs two and a half hours but feels like an hour and a half. Like a roller coaster ride, I wanted it to go longer. But the ending is natural and provides sufficient closure. You’ll know it by the post-script crawl. And you certainly won’t forget the hypnotic use a Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” which bookends the film – in fact it’s still in my head as I type this.
As an aside, if anyone’s interested in the technical side of the film you'll know David Fincher’s films always look crisp and sharp. This is his first film using HD Video, and it’s a perfect match. The results are superb, thanks in part to the new Viper camera system and the great cinematographer, Harris Savides, who gave the film a classic cinemascope look. Unlike, say, “Miami Vice” it’s the best looking HD film I’ve seen. I’m officially sold.
Please don’t go into the film expecting a gruesome extension of “Seven” or a twisty-turny “Fight Club”, it’s “All the President’s Men” through and through - consummate professionals who live and die by the details and procedures of the job. Enjoy both films.
Buy it here: Zodiac (Widescreen Edition)
Sunday, 22 July 2007
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) dir. Tom Tykwer
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman
WOW. Perfume is an awesome film. Released at the tail end of 2006, it received mixed reviews and didn’t last too long in theatres. With it's DVD release this week, now is the time to discover the film. It’s macabre, amoral, disturbing but engrossing and thoroughly satisfying. It follows the life of a serial killer motivated by his highly sensitive sense of smell. The film is based on Patrick Susskind’s 1985 novel, which was labeled ‘unfilmable’ (by Stanley Kubrick no less). Enter Tom Tykwer, German director of “Run Lola Run” and the beautiful film “Heaven”. Tykwer and his German key creatives have created a masterpiece of genre, horror, and period. It’s an extraordinary experience and a must see.
It’s the mid 1700’s France. Narrator John Hurt describes to us the story of a most unusual child born in the dirty, smelly slums of Paris. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, unwanted from conception, we see him being birthed under a table at a fish market, umbilical cord cut with a skinning knife and kicked aside by his mother assuming it’s a still birth. This scene sets the tone for the film. It’s a dark, surreal fable told with a morbid wink of humour to the audience.
Jean-Baptiste discovers he has the most extraordinary sense of smell. He can smell as good as people can see, discerning shape, size, movement of people and objects. In his teens Baptiste is sold to a Paris tannery where he experiences Parisian life for the first time. The key moment in his life is his first meeting with a woman. The smell of her is so intoxicating he spends the rest of his life in pursuit of capturing the smell. This is where I’ll end the synopsis, because the less you know the better. But I can say that the film gets better and better all the way to the end – especially the end. WOW!
The story unfolds masterfully. Along the way we meet the surprisingly interesting character of Guiseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), Baptiste’s perfuming mentor, who teaches him the trade of recreating and constructing scents from oils and herbs. The challenge of portraying the sense of smell on screen is daunting. Where Susskind could use words to describe the sensation, Tykwer has to rely on sight, sound and performance to make the connection. Tykwer pulls it off thanks in part to the wonderful performance of Dustin Hoffman.
Ben Whishaw is a revelation as the disturbed protagonist. He murders and kills people for his own personal gain yet he’s engaging and likeable. Tykwer effectively sets up his character as damaged, broken down and a product of his environment. So in the most morbid way you sympathize with him. And since the film always retains the wink to the audience you actually want to see him complete his grand plan no matter how high the body count.
Period films are not my bag and though it’s set in 18th century France, “Perfume” is no costume drama. It bristles with pace and energy. But that’s no surprise. “Run Lola Run” set the bar for pace. But don’t get me wrong, the film isn’t style over substance. It’s stylish, but not flashy. Tykwer composes his music effectively as well. He channels the deep gothic murmurs of Richard Wagner performed by the Berlin Philharmonic to great effect.
“Perfume” is very dark and obsessive, but so very satisfying. The most awesome moment is the build up and climax at the end – it reminded me of the finale of “Seven”. Like John Doe’s masterplan, Grenoiulle’s finale hurrah is a sight to behold and is definitely worth the price of admission. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Perfume - The Story Of A Murderer
Saturday, 21 July 2007
The Contract (2006) dir. Bruce Beresford
Starring: John Cusack, Morgan Freeman
“The Contract”? Never heard of it? Neither had I. Though it’s a straight-to-video release it had a solid director with two great actors, so I thought there might be some value for an under-the-radar discovery. I was wrong. It’s a paycheque film.
Morgan Freeman plays Frank Cordell, a hitman leading a group of former CIA thugs. The film opens with Freeman receiving his orders via cell phone. The orders are confirmed with Freeman’s sparse line of dialogue, “it’s on.” In the middle of the mission Cordell gets into a car accident and is rendered unconscious. His gun alerts the authorities and he wakes up in a hospital bed handcuffed to the post. As he’s being transported to the authorities (somewhere in remote woods of Washington State) his thug compatriots ambush the car, but not before it tumbles down a cliff and into the river to be carried off deep into the barren woods.
Meanwhile Ray Keane (John Cusack), a humble single dad is having troubles with his rebellious son. To repair the family rift and bond like men they decide to go camping in the woods. There they meet the escapee Cordell floating down the river with the U.S. Marshall who has been shot. Before his death, the Marshall’s last dying words are not to let Cordell go. He gives Cusack his gun and handcuff keys, then dies.
And so sets up another take on “The River Wild”, “Shoot to Kill”, and “The Edge”. The film fights really hard to fill the plot holes and logical inconsistencies – aka the “what would I do in this situation” problem. Any sane father with a child would let the guy go, retreat to safety then call the cops. But at the 30mins mark we suddenly learn Keane conveniently is a former cop, who now “teaches” gym (and drives the ugliest Chevy Lumina Mini Van imaginable). That’s the writers telling us he’s itching for some action. Well Keane and his son get some action in the form of the four thugs who chase them down. Some kind of conspiracy plot also emerges through the dialogue, there’s some kidnapper-hostage type of bonding between Cordell and Keane and Keane and his son successful bury the hatchet admid gunfire and helicopter crashes and the like.
Cusack and Freeman are surprisingly dull. Freeman hardly speaks a word except to fill the aforementioned plot holes and the supporting characters, especially the four thugs are cardboard caricatures of any generic action film.
Director Beresford tries really hard to cover up the bland plot by tossing in perfunctory action filmmaking techniques. Ie. Cordell’s car crash, which is just an accident but is staged like a grand action scene, with two car flips, a camera shot from inside the car as it turns upside down, multiple overlapping camera angles etc. Beresford employs the great cinematographer Dante Spinotti, someone else enticed by a large paycheque I imagine, but it doesn’t help.
The main question I have is why Cusack, Beresford, Freeman and Spinotti chose to make this film. Going by the credits, perhaps it was a chance to see the Balkan mountains of Bulgaria where the film was shot. Yes, we have a first, Bulgaria for Washington. In fact, the credits were the most interesting part of the film. The funniest credit is “Mr. Cusack’s masseuse”. I giggled at that. At least he spent his time there in comfort.
Don’t be fooled by the fancy cover or the big names, or taglines like, from the director and star of “Driving Miss Daisy”. “The Contract” wouldn’t even stand as an episode of “Prison Break”… Season 2 that is. The only redemption is that Cusack and Freeman’s paycheques went to a good cause.
Friday, 20 July 2007
Sunshine (2007) dir. Danny Boyle
Starring Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans
Opening today is “Sunshine” - a science-fiction film about a group of astronauts sent from earth to reignite the dying sun. It’s a high concept film that blends elements of “Solaris” with “Alien”, resulting in a lesser hybrid of the two.
“Sunshine” is in a precarious position. It’s only for selective audiences, and even those audiences (which is me) will find faults with it. And to make things worse it will likely take years before it can achieve the cult status it’s aimed at being. So I’m afraid it will likely spell doom in the theatres. Having said that I do admire the film very much, but have only given it a 3-star rating, knowing that, with age, it will likely grow into something bigger.
At the top, in voiceover, we’re told the sun is dying and the only way to save humanity is to reignite it with a highly concentrated nuclear bomb. Then the film immediately jumps into the story by putting us on a spacecraft headed for the sun. There’s no obligatory earth scenes, or training sequences, writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle clearly know its audience is literate to this story, so there’s no need. Their crew consists of an international group of eight astronauts, physicists, biologists etc. Cillian Murphy, the physicist who will deliver the payload is the protagonist. The ship, Icarus II, is the second mission after the first attempt failed seven years, ago. Along the way they encounter the Icarus I and discover the reasons why it failed in its mission. Something sinister comes in the crew’s way to accomplishing their mission, and it’s up to Cillian to save the planet.
I admire Danny Boyle’s films. His great films (“Shallow Grave”, “Trainspotting” and “28 Days Later”) are some of my favourite films of the last 20 years. And even his duds (“A Life Less Ordinary” or “The Beach”) are redeemed with dynamic pacing and a unique visual style. “Sunshine” is no exception. There are some truly awe inspiring sci-fi moments including the awesome power of the sun, which acts as an omnipresent character in the film. Boyle’s camera pans and glides across the massive heat shield reminding us how close the characters are to being disintegrated in a split second by the intensity of the sun. Inside the ship we are treated to a number of tense moments, unfortunately involving the familiar space-bound sequences we’ve seen in other films. There’s a space-walk, a space-docking, running toward closing hatches etc. But Boyle is always so clever and he brings these overplayed scenes to a whole new level.
“Sunshine” wants to have its cake and eat it too – to be a credible art film exploring existential elements of “Solaris” and “2001”, yet entertain with “Alien"-like scares. BEWARE SOME SPOILERS COMING UP. …The film could have been both if it were clearer with these two elements. The ‘monster’ part of the story is told very obliquely. And I was confused why the monster is actually obscured from the audience for no apparent reason. And it’s frustratingly manipulative because Boyle only obscures the monster from us, the audience, while the characters in the film get to see him in full view. In “Alien” Ridley Scott obscured the Alien for most of the picture and only revealed it to us when the characters see it for the first time. In “Sunshine” we don’t ever get a full reveal. What gives?
The film also gets sloppy in the end with the action. It’s quite difficult to understand the geography of the ship - who is where and why. It all stems from Boyle’s need NOT to show exactly what’s going on, with ultra-tight editing and fractured camera views.
The existential moments are pseudo-spiritual and don’t break new ground. But there’s a genuine love for humanity and the gifts of science to us that bring the film to that ethereal level. In the end, I didn’t mind the lack of logic with the action nor the holes in the plot. When Underworld’s Eno-esque music climaxes the film washed over me like a gentle wave and gave me sufficient satisfaction.
So I would advise seeing “Sunshine” with the knowledge that it won’t be “28 Days Later” or “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but a different but worthy experience, outside of the Harry Potter/Spider Man/Transformers/Shrek extravaganzas. Enjoy.
Thursday, 19 July 2007
The Conversation (1974) dir. Francis Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale
Yesterday I wrote about “Vertigo”, today’s I’ll write about another famous San Francisco film – “The Conversation” - a paranoia film about a reserved and quiet surveillance man whose conscience is awakened when he finds out the couple he’s spying on may be targeted for murder. It’s a classic 70’s film from arguably the decade’s best director.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the nation’s top surveillance expert. The film opens on Harry and his team recording a conversation between a man and a woman in the middle of San Francisco’s famous “Market Square” using a series of long distance microphones. After reviewing the tapes Harry discovers what might be a plot to murder the couple. When Caul visits his employer he refuses to give up the tapes unless he meets his employer face-to-face. Instead he’s brushed off by his assistant, played by a young Harrison Ford. Harry’s conscience won’t allow him to release tapes. Instead he retreats to his lab to uncover the conspiracy himself.
Harry Caul is one cinema’s classic characters – a loner, with an acute talent, so acute in fact, his life has become a day-by-day intimate obsession with his job. He doesn’t get out much, and when he does it’s spent in the company of other wiretappers who seem bent on comparing dick sizes. A night on the town after a trade show turns into a game between Harry and his east coast competitor Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield) of one-upmanship to prove who’s the better wiretapper. I won’t ruin the payoff, but the scene ends with Harry being humiliated by Moran. Harry’s insecurities run deeper though. An incident from his days in NYC are often brought up which resulted the mob murder of some of the people he was tapping. This guilty conscience awakens with his latest case. The climax of the film contains a great reveal about the case, and the denouement (and specifically the last scene) is sad and somber ending which reveals the current state of Harry’s mind. It’s one of Gene Hackman’s best performances. Usually known for his tough guy roles, Hackman’s Caul is a soft spoken, shy introvert. Despite his towering stature he is meek and insecure.
“The Conversation” was made at a time just as Watergate hit, and so Coppola’s timing was impeccable. He captured the paranoia of big government and the secrets and lies that are covered up by the highest powers. Other films such as “All the President’s”, and “The Parallax View” would tread similar ground. Coppola’s influence was likely Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up” which tells the story of a photographer who thinks he discovered a murder in one of his photographs.
Sound designer Walter Murch was highly influential in much of Coppola’s work, including “THX 1138” and “American Graffiti”. The attention to the sound is remarkable and is as important as the cinematography. The film was shot by Bill Butler and doesn’t stand out like Gordon Willis’ or Vittorio Storaro’s work with Coppola, but it’s justly unobtrusive and complements the quiet story.
What’s remarkable about the film is that Coppola shot it in between the two Godfathers. Has there been a greater quality of output from a director in such a short period of time? Please send me some examples if so. Coppola was at the peak of his talents. Watching the film again is a delight, but if you’re watching it for the first time, I’m insanely jealous.
Buy it here: The Conversation
Wednesday, 18 July 2007
Vertigo (1958) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is a legendary film, a film that most dramatically put Hitchcock’s own obsessions on the screen to analyze and dissect. And a tad too much I think. To me “Vertigo” is a simple film about a desperate man who is manipulated by his fears and lustful obsessiveness of the ultimate woman into committing murder.
Scottie (James Stewart) is a police detective forced to leave his job due to his fear of heights. He receives solace from his good friend Midge, a former girlfriend who strangely seems to hang around and not take no for an answer. One day a former college friend Gavin shows up and offers Scottie a private investigation job of following his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) around. Scottie, desperate to regain his pride, takes the job and follows her through various locales around San Francisco. Scottie saves Madeleine from a suicide attempt and then falls in love with her. On her second suicide attempt atop a church bell tower she succeeds to taking her own life. Scottie's life returns to despair in the aftermath, until one day when he miraculously finds her doppelganger working as a department store clerk. Her name is Judy, and apart from the brown hair, she’s a spitting image of Madeleine.
Scottie tries desperately to woo Judy as an obsessive attempt to rekindle his love for Madeleine. Scottie succeeds in catching Judy and makes the ultimate request to change her hair colour and clothing to exactly resemble Madeleine. Just as Scottie has recreated her back from the dead, his world comes crashing down again when he discovers the truth about Gavin, Madeleine and Judy.
Hitchcock and Stewart enter a different realm of mind games in the second half of the film. Stewart’s character moves from the typical everyman character he portrayed in “Rope”, or “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to an obsessively dangerous stalker. Hitchcock wounds Scottie more badly than any of his protagonists and builds him back up with mixed up pieces of himself. The Scottie at the beginning of the film is not the Scottie at the end. It’s a disturbing transformation and one in which only the audience and not the characters in the film fully acknowledge.
Watching the film from today’s eyes plot holes emerge with Judy’s motivation to comply with Scottie’s requests of her. Did Judy actually fall in love with Scottie and so freely transforms back into Madeleine so she can be with Scottie forever? Another curiously forgotten-about plot hole is the character of Midge who pines after Scottie over and over again. She is virtually dropped from the plot without resolution. This always bugged me. Perhaps it’s all part of Hitchcock’s fear of women. His shapeless and drab grey costume design of Madeleine’s is also part of his misogynist obsession and frequent humiliation of his leading ladies.
Technically Vertigo wrote the book on the building intriguing and suspense. It is the typical “Hitchcockian” film where the elements of psychoanalysis, manipulative femme fatales, obsessive haunting fears, mental and physical manipulation all come into play. Hitchcock’s use of colour, location, camera movement and light are all hallmarks of his style. Hitchcock uses the point of view of the camera effectively especially in the following sequences of Scottie and Madeleine. The film is most famous for its ‘dolly-zooms” which creates the effect of Scottie’s vertigo, but for me the piece-de-résistance is the circular shot around Judy and Scottie when they embrace and kiss. Brian De Palma stole that shot a number of times, but it’s “Vertigo” where it was first used. The shot is still effective today.
I know what you’re thinking… why not four stars? What happened to the other half star? Am I crazy? It’s one of the greatest films of all time. I do think “Vertigo” is a great film, but is it Hitchcock’s best? In my opinion, no. I can think of half a dozen films I enjoy more. The film’s locales, set pieces, music and obsessions are legendary, but for my tastes I’ll take “Psycho”, “Rear Window”, “Rebecca”, or “Shadow of a Doubt” any day. Did Hitchcock intend “Vertigo” to be the deep psychoanalytical complex story critics write about it as? Or did he intend it to be another piece of thrilling melodramatic entertainment? I think it succeeds supremely as the latter. But some people see it as the former. Either way it’s a great film. Ok fire away.
Buy it here: Vertigo (Collector's Edition)
One of the best title sequences ever:
Tuesday, 17 July 2007
Do the Right Thing (1989) dir. Spike Lee
Starring: Spike Lee, John Turturro, Danny Aiello
“Do the Right Thing” is just as powerful today as it was 18 years ago. To this day no other film has better captured the passion, anger, and fatalities of race relations in America. It is the quintessential film on the subject. This film should have been made 20 years prior during the height of the civil rights movement, but back then despite the change in values, audiences weren’t ready for the brutal honesties of Spike Lee.
“Do the Right Thing” is set on the hottest day of the summer in Bed Stuy NY, a racially mixed area of Brooklyn. Mookie (Spike himself) is a local pizza deliverer for Sal’s Pizzeria, the popular hangout for the kids. Sal’s is owned by Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello) who also employs his two son’s Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). As Mookie walks the streets delivering pizza we get to meet the cultural mosaic of the block. There’s the Korean corner store owners, the three Jamaicans who banter and gawk at the passerbies from their lawnchair street view, there’s the Puerto Ricans who battle for music-playing supremacy, there’s the cops who slowly cruise the streets looking for trouble – and sometimes creating it themselves. It’s a lively community but beneath it is a simmering hatred of everyone else. All it takes is one small spark before tempers flare, fingers are pointed and mob mentality kicks in. Spike Lee dramatizes one extraordinary day with the highest skill, intensity, and rage.
Shot by his then #1 collaborator, Ernest Dickerson “Do the Right Thing” brims with vibrant colours, dynamic and original scenes and stand alone vignettes of great poignancy. For example, the stereo battle between Radio Raheem and the Puerto Ricans, the montage of racial slurs from all the cultures of the neighbourhood, Samuel L. Jackson as the radio DJ, Senior Lovedaddy, and Radio Raheem’s spin on Robert Mitchum's ‘love’ and ‘hate’ speech.
The film brought to mainstream prominence Public Enemy who’s “Fight the Power” became the theme of the film. Other than say, “Hustle and Flow” there hasn’t been a hip hop song with a more potent relevance to its film.
And has there been another film with more scene stealing performances than “Do the Right Thing”? Let’s list some of the great performances, Rosie Perez as Mookie’s Latina-attitude giving girlfriend, Giancarlo Esposito as the white Air Jordan-wearing standing-up-to-the-man buddy of Mookie’s, Bill Nunn as the intimidating Radio Raheem, John Savage as the Larry Bird-loving Brownstone-owning bicyclist neighbour, Robin Harris as the teeth-sucking Jamaican layabout, Sweet Dick Willy, Ossie Davis as the kind-hearted town drunk, Da Mayor, Frank Vincent as the hot-headed Italian mobster who’s car gets sprayed with water, and many many more.
Few films have more effectively built-up tension than “Do the Right Thing”. It’s masterpiece of counter-playing humour with anger and moving between the two emotions so fluidly. Look at the scene where Ahmad’s (Steve White) innocent razzing of Da Mayor turns into an angered verbal assault on his irresponsible freeloading drunkenness, or the climactic confrontation in Sal’s Pizzeria. “Do the Right Thing” was so sharp and intelligent about the racial tension in America and the tightrope wire of violence the inner cities were teetering on. Remember just 3 years later the real thing happened with the Rodney King riots.
“Do the Right Thing” still doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Back in 1989 the film failed to receive any major Oscar nominations (except for Danny Aiello’s Best Supporting Actor nod). It was a travesty then, and it’s still a travesty “Do the Right Thing” isn’t talked about as one of the great American films. After "Raging Bull", I think "Do the Right Thing" is the next best film of the 80's. Fight the power.
Buy it here: Do The Right Thing - Criterion Collection
Listen to the effect of the background music and street sounds in this scene:
Here’s Radio Raheem’s '20 D Batteries' clip:
Monday, 16 July 2007
Factory Girl (2006) dir. George Hickenlooper
Starring: Sienna Miller, Guy Pearce, Hayden Christensen
There’s nothing remarkable about “Factory Girl”, and at the same time there’s nothing offputting about it. So is “Factory Girl” is a waste of time? No. It’s competently told, with decent performances ultimately telling the tragic story of an innocent girl destroyed by her own quest for fame. The story is remarkably relevant today in light of the talentless manufactured celebrities we are exposed to everyday in gossip mags and entertainment shows.
Edie Sedgewick’s talent wasn’t in art or business, it was magnetism. Sedgewick was the granddaughter of inventor of the elevator and who enjoyed a privileged youth. After dropping out of her private she abandons the privileged and protected life of an heiress in favour of the fast and furious world of the New York City art scene. Edie’s charismatic personality is infectious and she quickly befriends a young artist named Andy Worhol. Edie is brought into Worhol’s coterie of artists nicknamed “the Factory” where she becomes his muse in front of the camera in a series of avant-garde art films. Sedgewick becomes an official celeb when she’s spotted on his arm at various social functions, parties and premieres. But we all know the higher the climb the bigger the fall.
A rift develops with Worhol when she becomes involved with a folk singer named“Billy Quinn”, who is really a pseudonymed version of “Bob Dylan” as played by Hayden Christensen. Apparently Dylan denied ever having a relationship with Sedgewick and thus refused to lend his name to the film. Worhol’s jealousy of the relationship damages Sedgewick’s entire existence and the only way she can cope is with drugs. And so the downfall begins, the ending of which I won’t reveal, but it’s not unpredictable.
Hickenlooper and his writers portray Sedgewick as the innocent victim and Worhol as childlike mama’s boy who resents Sedgewick for changing cliques. The motivations of Worhol’s destruction of her career seems purely motivated by jealousy. Is it artistic jealously of Dylan’s talent? I’m not sure but to distill a great and complex artist down to high school antics is disappointing.
Sienna Miller is a great Sedgewick. She creates a distinct rhythm of speech – like a character within a character – when she’s playing the networking game. Despite the faults in character Guy Pearce is a good Worhol. Worhol’s been played very well in several films, and though I don’t think it quite stands up Jared Harris’ Andy in “I Shot Andy Worhol” Pearce definitely disappears into the role. I wonder though if, as depicted in this film, Worhol actually wore his sunglasses all the time even when he wasn’t being photographed? Probably not. I would have liked to have seen Pearce’s eyes some more in some of the meatier scenes of the film. The best of which being Worhol'sand director Chuck Wein's (Jimmy Fallon) psychological torture of Edie during the filming of one his movies.
I was also distracted by George Hickenlooper’s Oliver Stone-like techniques of multiple film stocks, grains and colorization. He’s obviously going for a psychedelic drug haze feel, but Stone did it better than anyone and so there’s no need to copy.
And so I have to sit on the fence again for “Factory Girl.” Rent it with caution.
Buy it here: Factory Girl
Sunday, 15 July 2007
Days of Heaven (1978) dir. Terrence Malick
Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard
Don’t worry, I’m not going to do another list, but if a poll were taken for the most beautiful film of all time, “Days of Heaven” would probably top the list. The title is synonymous with top notch cinematography and poetic introspective filmmaking. Though it’s shot by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler it’s Terrence Malick’s film from beginning to end. It’s one of the greatest films of all time.
It’s turn of the century America. A trio of displaced people from the east have moved west to start a new living in the burgeoning Midwest prairies. Bill and Abby (Gere and Adams) are a couple and little Linda is Billy's 12 year old sister. We never really get to know the trio and where they came from. The opening scene shows Bill arguing with a former employer at a steel factory, hitting him in the face and running off into the distance. We don’t know where or when this took place or what happened to the man he hit. Is Bill on the run from the authorities? We never know. It’s this type of non-specific oblique storytelling that makes “Days of Heaven” so fascinating. The backstory is etched in the subtle facial features of Billy, Abby and Linda. The details are their sordid past are not necessary to explain the desperation they now find themselves in.
While working on a farm harvesting wheat, the (nameless) farm owner played by Sam Shepard falls in love with Abby on first sight. I don’t know why, Adams is not dressed or made up to look like a stunner, but there’s an instant connection that sends life coursing through his veins. When Bill discovers the farmer is dying they hatch a plan to pretend they are siblings and milk the inheritance money out of the man before he dies. Since Abby and Bill have kept quiet about their relationship the plan works and so begins the Shakespearan-type tragedy that will ensue between the three of them.
The film is told from the point of view of the child, Linda (Linda Manz) and mainly through her almost arbitrary voiceover. It’s a childlike view into this new world. The passages don’t necessarily make sense or explain the story but it compliments the dreamlike atmosphere of the experience.
The film indeed is dreamlike. Malick’s choice of music washes over you like gentle waves. He uses original compositions from the great Ennio Morricone, but the theme of the film is Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals". The opening credits set the tone perfectly - Camille’s piece played with a gorgeous piano arrangement, visualized with sepia toned photographs of the era - a classical story about American history told with the utmost artistic interpretation.
The star of the show is the cinematography. Nestor Almendros, a frequent collaborator of Francois Trauffat’s, shot the film in 70mm and the quality of the higher resolution and detail of the large format is evident. The film takes place mostly outdoors and at the magic hour of the day - the hours during sunset and sunrise which creates a unique colour and softness of the light. The result is the sepia toned look of the opening sequence created in camera. The first time I saw the film (on video) I was astounded - each shot was more astonishing than the one before it. Malick frames his film with perfect composition and, when required, highlights areas with just enough light to create exquisite depth. Watch the shot after Billy assaults his boss at the steel factory. The shot of Gere running away from the camera with the shafts of light in the background is one of my favourites. This scene was actually shot by Haskell Wexler, who famously had to fill in for Almendros after he left to shoot another film in Europe after “Days of Heaven” ran overlong. Wexler’s achievements coming on to finish the film and seamlessly blending his footage with Almendros’ are remarkable as well.
“Days of Heaven” was released in 1978, yet the film was shot in 1976 and took two years to edit. I salivate at the thought of what was left on the cutting room which apparently included more details of the plot and likely more sumptuous photography. But adding footage to “Days of Heaven” is like adding inches to the Mona Lisa, it’s a work of art. It’s now the equivalent of an Ansel Adams photograph or an Andrew Wyeth portrait.
I have a list of films I need to see on the big screen. I was too young to see the film in the theatres when it was original released and I’ve missed every chance to see it on the big screen at various festivals and revivals in town over the years. “Days of Heaven” is at the top of this list. But with today’s big screen TVs the experience of “Days of Heaven” can as wonderful as ever. It’s mandatory viewing. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Days of Heaven
Saturday, 14 July 2007
Easy Rider (1969) dir. Dennis Hopper
Starring: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson
The first time I saw “Easy Rider” in the mid 90’s I didn’t like it. It felt dated, over-hyped and too generational to be a cinematic classic. Back then I was young and not as versed in the history of cinema to understand it fully. Upon second viewing I’ve learned to appreciate the time and place and cultural significance of the film. Now "Easy Rider" is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
It’s 1969, the height of flower power America. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda play Billy and Wyatt, two Californians traveling across the country on choppers to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. The film opens with a drug deal, Billy and Wyatt buying cocaine from some Mexicans and then reselling it to some rich business men (one of them played by Phil Spector no less) for much higher value. It’s the big score which will allow them the freedom to travel the country and experience life unimpeded.
Along the way they experience America at its best and worst. They pick up a hitchhiker who takes them to a commune where they spend some quality time getting in touch with the hippie lifestyle. Somewhere in Texas they enter a small town and get arrested and thrown in jail for ‘parading without a license’. There they meet George Hanson, an alcohol lawyer, played by Jack Nicholson (his first acclaimed role). George is fascinated with Wyatt and Billy’s carefree adventure and decides to join them as a threesome. Close to New Orleans, the freedom of the American open road turns on them when they encounter small town redneck bigotry. Things turn dangerous and violent which reminds us that with all the peace, love and flower power the 60’s represented there was an equally powerful narrow-minded conservative class pushing as heavily against liberal change. In the end our protagonists lose out.
Wyatt and Billy are a curious pair. They’re not typical hippies. They’re opportunists with their own personal set of ethics. By showing them buying coke, smuggling it across the border and trafficking it in the States makes criminals from the outset. But writers Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern make sure to show that our heroes aren’t just selling coke to ordinary hardworking American folk, but privileged upperclassmen (the 'establishment') who deserve to destroy their bodies with overpriced drugs. When they encounter the commune, they are introduced to the lifestyle as if they are outsiders to the culture. And in George’s fireside speech about the freedom they represent, it further shows their naivety to their own way of life. This way the audience will identify with Wyatt and Billy, which makes it a mainstream-accessible film instead of an esoteric puff piece to hippie-dom.
“Easy Rider” is very psychedelic and uses much visual experimentation. The extreme handheld camera movements, crash zooms, and odd transition techniques don’t translate well to today, but the use of the timeless songs like “The Weight” by The Band and “Crosstown Traffic” by Jimi Hendrix more than compensates. The experimentation was the main reason I didn’t take to the film when I was in my teens. But I can now look past these elements and admire the heart and soul of the film – a snapshot commentary on the 60’s movement which divided so many people. It’s an important film. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Easy Rider
Friday, 13 July 2007
Sling Blade (1996) dir. Billy Bob Thornton
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, John Ritter
I‘ve never forgotten how good “Sling Blade” is. Made in 1996 by then unknown, yet multi-talented writer/director/actor Billy Bob Thornton, it was an incredible achievement. The film had passion, suspense, humour and is a true auteur piece of cinema. Every couple of years I try to watch and re-experience the film. You should too.
The story is so simple yet each and every time I re-watch it it packs an emotional wallop. Billy Bob Thornton plays Karl Childers who, after over 30 years, is recently released from the local mental institution and forced to reintroduce himself into regular society. Karl is mentally slow and has trouble socializing with the Arkansas locals. Karl chatting with the warden’s family at his house is wonderful scene. Karl gets a job fixing engines at a local body shop. He also meets a young kid Frank (Lucas Black), who likes Karl because he talks like a motorbike. Karl becomes the father Frank never had. He is ingratiated into his home by his kindly mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), but is also forced to deal with her abusive boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). Doyle is the typical redneck and perhaps the only typecast character. As Linda’s gay friend Vaughn describes him, “he is a monster”.
As Karl’s friendship deepens with Frank he realizes the danger Doyle represents to the family harmony potential in Linda and Frank. Karl was abused as a child, and killed his mother which brought him to the mental institution. Karl makes a selfless sacrifice that will affect everyone’s lives including his own for the better.
Billy Bob embodies Karl. It’s clear Billy Bob had this film and this character in his mind for a long time. The film echoes Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”. Karl is essentially Lennie – the kind-hearted giant whose heart is stronger than his body. John Ritter shines as Vaughn. He plays his homosexuality with subtly and we admire his nobility when he stands up to Doyle after a drunken fight in Linda’s home. In many ways Vaughn is as much of a hero to the family as Karl is. Without Karl in Frank’s life we assume Vaughn will become the ‘in absentia’ father figure.
Another star of the film is Daniel Lanois who composed the score. Lanois made his career producing albums for Brian Eno, U2, and Bob Dylan, but he is given his time to shine on “Sling Blade”. His Southern melancholy sound sets the perfect tone for the film. The scene when Karl finds his infant brother’s makeshift grave at his father house is great and made so much more heartbreaking with Lanois' dreamlike music cue.
Billy Bob Thornton was nominated for two Oscars for the film in 1996 – Best Actor, and Best Writer. He won for Best Writer. Other than acting Billy Bob hasn’t had much success since. His second film “All the Pretty Horses” was such a disaster professionally, personally, commercially and for the most part critically. Has anyone seen “Daddy and Them” with Laura Dern ‘released’ in 2001 but actually shot after “Sling Blade”? Maybe Thornton will never direct another film again. But remember Charles Laughton only directed one film. All it takes is one great film to solidify one’s name in cinema history. Billy Bob has done that with “Sling Blade”. Enjoy
Buy it here: Sling Blade
Here’s the brilliant opening scene: