Saturday, 30 June 2007
American Graffiti (1973) dir. George Lucas
Starring: Richard Dreyfus, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark
Remember when George Lucas was a good filmmaker? Seems like so long ago. Let’s go back to “American Graffiti”, Lucas’s second directorial effort, an ensemble nostalgia film about growing up in the early 1960’s. Graffiti started the successful careers of many of its stars including Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, and Ron Howard. It was a personal film about Lucas’s youth and the passion that went into making it is visible on screen. It’s a terrific film that stands up to most of the “Star Wars” films.
The year is 1962 in suburban California. The film takes place over one night and follows a group of recently graduated high schoolers for one last romp before they each head their separate ways. Much of the action happens in around the precious cars that the kids drive up and down the main drag. A high school dance is worked into the mix where Steve and Laurie (played by soon to be ‘Happy Days’ costars, Ron Howard and Cindy Williams) are on the brink of breaking up; Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfus) gets lost from the group and is taken on a wild ride with a group of local thugs led by the veteran heavy, Bo Hopkins; Terry The Toad (Charles Martin Smith) finds first love with Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark); and John Milner (Paul Le Mat) befriends a 13 year old who jumps into his hot rod car for an adventurous ride.
The metaphor of the transition from youth to adulthood is echoed in the setting. 1962 was two years before the British Invasion and before the psychedelic swinging 60’s. John Milner references the uncertain future when he says “music’s been going downhill since Buddy Holly died”. This somberness foreshadows the ending which comes as a tonal surprise. Innocence is behind Lucas’s characters and the future will never be same. “American Graffiti” then becomes the photo album of his generation.
Graffiti has the innate naturalism of an intensely personal or autobiographical film. Like “Mean Streets” or “Dazed and Confused”, or even “Fellini’s 8/12”. All these films have a natural organic flow that plays interrupted without obvious plotting or story beats. The beats are there, but with natural performances and dialogue we forget we’re manipulated by a story. That’s why the ending of “American Graffiti” resonates, because we actually get to know these characters as people.
At first glance, “American Graffiti” may not resemble “Star Wars” or “THX 1138” at all, but on close examination Lucas’s brilliant eye is always present. His static compositions are very similar to his other films, and the glowing and reflected lights of the street and the cars are a beautiful site. Its clear George Lucas knew how to frame a shot, how to edit and how to direct actors.
It’s a shame Lucas lost his touch. In the 80’s he obviously concentrated his efforts on producing, and forming ILM. It would have been nice to see what other films he could make without the mask of CGI of the new “Star Wars” films. Sadly, I don’t think we’ll ever know. Though we may have lost George Lucas forever to the dark side, I sure hope he has it in him to surprise me. Enjoy.
Buy it here: American Graffiti (Collector's Edition)
Friday, 29 June 2007
Sophie’s Choice (1982) dir. Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Meryl Streep, Peter MacNichol, Kevin Kline
After watching the AFI Top 100 American films list, I decided to watch one of its new additions – “Sophie’s Choice”. I knew only two things about the film: one, the tragic “choice” that Sophie has to make and reason for the title, and two, Meryl Streep’s grand performance. Perhaps my background to the film clouded my viewing experience, but it didn’t come close to any of my expectations. Many of you are thinking - “Sophie’s Choice” is so heartbreaking; it’s a classic; but Meryl Streep is so good? Bah humbug. It was a slow, tedious and poorly executed missed opportunity of a film.
The film is set after World War II and told from the point of view of Stingo (Peter MacNichol) a naïve young writer from the south who has come to New York City to author his first book. He quickly befriends two of his new neighbours: Sophie, a lovely and playful Polish immigrant and Nathan (Kevin Kline) her eccentric, rowdy, yet intellectual lover. Together they form a “Jules and Jim” meets “Talented Mr. Ripley” type of threesome. They don’t go into true ménage-a-trois territory, but their relationship is anchored by their mutual attraction to Sophie. Nathan, though gregarious and fun, is also passive-aggressive and prone to violent irrational freak-outs. Yet somehow Stingo and Sophie always go back to him.
During the convalescence from Nathan’s fits of madness, Stingo slowly discovers a series of lies Sophie has told about her mysterious past. As Stingo gains Sophie’s trust she opens up about her experiences in a concentration camp during the War. Though not a Jew, she was interned in Auschwitz with her two children, and suffered egregious emotional turmoil. I won’t spoil it, but a big reveal at the end unveils the difficult choice she was forced to make at the hands of the Nazi’s. Her choice has informed the rest of the decisions later in life, including her tortured relationship with Nathan.
The story of “Sophie’s Choice” is certainly compelling and Meryl Streep disappears into her character, and the actual scene of the “choice” is heartbreaking. Unfortunately the film is structured around a fluffy romp-in-the-city threesome plotline not worthy of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Kevin Kline’s over-the-top… uh..Kevin Kline-ness overpowers both MacNichol and Streep in all their scenes. The actual screentime devoted to Sophie’s past is treated almost as an aside for most of the film. Though Sophie’s guilty past is supposed to be the reason for her destructive behaviour in the present it’s never fully fused together. It feels like two different films.
Stingo’s aged voiceover in the present is unnecessary. It sounds as if it were Stingo looking back and telling the story from many years in the future, but we never see Stingo as an aged man and so the voice doesn’t match the character we see on screen.
These incongruous elements complicate a story that doesn’t need complicating. The film is about Sophie’s choice (hence the title), and I don’t see how a linearly told story from beginning to end, without flashbacks wouldn’t be a better film. The film was based on a novel (which I haven’t read), and perhaps the structure worked in print, but its translation to the screen, in my mind, reduces the power of the story.
I don’t know if audiences in 1982 watched the film knowing the ending as I did. Perhaps they didn’t, and perhaps it’s why the film was so acclaimed in its day. But its inclusion on the AFI list makes me think that the voters voted purely on the memory of 25 years ago. Overall, “Sophie’s Choice” may be a ‘time-and-place’ film, but it doesn’t have the staying power to stand the test of time. Ok, bring it on!
Buy it here: Sophie's Choice
Thursday, 28 June 2007
4 Little Girls (1997) dir. Spike Lee
Spike Lee’s first documentary is a score. A nominee for best documentary in 1997, it ultimately lost to an equally noble holocaust film – “The Long Way Home”. Both are worthy, though it’s a shame Lee didn’t claim his first much deserved trophy.
“Four Little Girls” recounts the heinous hate crime which caused the death of four black adolescent girls from a church bombing in Birmingham Alabama in 1963. Birmingham was the ‘heart’ segregated America. Racial hatred was ingrained in social society and the Ku Klux was at the height of its influence. The tragic event ignited the civil rights movement on a national level.
Lee effectively tells the story in a straight-forward manner - talking heads and archival footage. Lee keeps himself out of the film, except for his offscreen voice which occasionally creeps into the soundtrack. We get to meet the families of the lost girls. They are working class, god-fearing citizens of Birmingham, who speak about the event as if it were yesterday. Civil Rights leader Rev Fred Shuttlesworth is the most courageous. Before the bombing he was a leader in the Birmingham community lobbying for equal rights. The footage of Shuttlesworth being savagely beaten in broad daylight on the street is horrific and yet inspiring.
The details supplied by the family members of that fateful Sunday morning visualize the horror of the tragedy – the girls’ cherished Sunday-best clothes, Carole’s mother’s girl scout badges which she still keeps, and Denise’s father’s description of her daughter’s hunger after smelling the fried onions from near a local restaurant on her way to the church.
Lee gives the white politicians and the lawyers of the time a chance to say their peace as well. Former Governor George Wallace makes a complete ass out of himself when he proclaims not be a racist citing that his best friend is black. He then proceeds to grab his aide, hiding off camera to bring him into the frame. The scared and frightful look on the aide’s face is priceless. But the real monster of the story is “Dynamite Bob” – a man who is responsible for more racist hate crimes than any man in the state. For 30 years he has been terrorizing black citizen with a series of brutal bombings. After over 10 years of on and off again investigation he is finally to court. The utter contempt on his smirking face should have put him away for good.
In the final moments of the film Lee brings in nationwide leaders and celebrities to comment on the effect of the tragedy. Bill Cosby, Walter Cronkite and Jesse add some relevant comments, though the inclusion of Green Bay Packer, Reggie White is a head-turner. Huh?
I’ve yet to see “When the Levee Breaks”, Lee’s two-part doc about the Katrina disaster, but if “4 Little Girls” is any indication, he will preserve the legacy of the victims of that disaster with equal reverence. Enjoy.
Buy it here: 4 Little Girls
Wednesday, 27 June 2007
The Fly (1958) dir. Kurt Neumann
Starring: Patricia Owens, David Hedison, Vincent Price
The original version of “The Fly” is a classic B sci-fi film - a wildly high concept about a scientist who accidentally fuses himself into part man, part fly. But it’s not a typical B horror film. Andre doesn’t become a killer Flyman monster; the film has a surprisingly tragic quality that makes it stand out from its contemporaries.
The plot is quite manipulative. The film opens in the present after Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens) has just killed her husband gruesomely in a machine press. The entire opening act takes place as an investigation into this death. It’s told from the point of view of the police, and so we only see the aftermath including a few curious details. Helene won’t talk about what happened, and why she put her husband in the press. To the police she is insane. Her brother-in-law, played by Vincent Price, eventually persuades her into recounting the story.
The second act is a flashback, told from Helene’s point of view. We meet Andre Delambre, Patricia’s husband - a dedicated scientist and all around Parisian gentleman. Andre has been working on a groundbreaking experiment which can transport objects through the air from one box to another. The first time we see Andre demonstrate the machine to his wife, he transports a ceramic plate across the room. It’s a well staged sequence; impressive lighting and sound effects effectively build up and release the suspense of the experiment. It’s a success, until Helene turns the plate over revealing the print is written backwards - a wonderful beat of intrigue!
With more success Andre gets riskier and riskier and soon he starts to experiment with animals. Helene is suspect and warms Andre of the dangers of playing with science. Despite this Andre conducts the experiment on himself. We know something has gone wrong when we see a handwritten note on the door asking Helene not to enter. Though we don’t see it on screen we learn from Andre’s notes that when going through the machine, a fly trapped itself inside the box, therefore reconstituting the fly’s arm and head with Andre’s body. The only way he can make himself right again is by finding the fly which has his human arm and head.
Andre’s appearance is hidden from Helene (and the audience) by a blanket placed over his head. When Helene eventually yanks it off we finally get the reveal of the horrifically deformed man. To this day, it’s still a frightening sequence. The multi-lensed point of the view of the camera is funny and horrific at the same time. Patricia Owens has a great b-movie scream as well. After failing to find the fly Andre asks Helene to help him commit suicide with the machine press. The sequence is surprisingly emotional for a b-movie. And the second time Helene uses the press on his arm is absolutely tragic.
The finale in the present day is also the stuff of cinematic legend. When Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall find the fly with Andre’s head stuck in the spider web crying out “help me”, “help me”, I got shivers down my back.
The film draws out the suspense and reveals itself with careful pacing. As I mentioned, it’s very manipulative, giving only portions of the details of the story and changing the point of view when needed to hide the surprises. David Cronenberg’s version plays the suspense much differently by gradually turning Jeff Goldblum into the Fly over the course of the film. Several sequences in this version stand out including the suspenseful search to trap the fly in the house, Andre’s mad destruction of his studio, the tragic killing of Andre and of course the “help me” sequence at the end.
“The Fly” is a B-movie through and through though. The dialogue is so on-the-nose it’s humourous. Helen’s explanation of the responsibility of science is a not-so-subtle metaphor for rapid nuclear advancement, and police chief Marshall’s admission that “she wasn’t insane all along” hit the nail squarely on our heads.
But “The Fly” is all in good fun and one of the best of 1950’s science fiction films. David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” though more intense, scary, emotional and complex owes much to the original. Please check it out. Enjoy.
Buy it here: The Fly (1958)/Return of the Fly (1959)
Andre makes his cat disappear in this scene:
Tuesday, 26 June 2007
Volver (2006) dir. Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas
I’ve never gotten the magic of Almodovar that others have, specifically the critically acclaimed “All About My Mother”. So, I was a little skeptical of “Volver” especially because of the hype and awards. I enjoyed the film, though not overwhelmed, so I guess I have to stay on the fence on this one.
“Volver” is Almodovar’s ode to Hitchcock. A witty and suspenseful tale about a dead mother who returns to the lives of her two daughters to unravel, reveal and atone for a generation of lies about the tragedies of her family.
Penelope Cruz plays one of the daughters, Raimunda. She, herself, has a daughter, Paula and a loathsome husband Paco. Raimunda returns home to find her daughter has killed Paco after he attempted to assault her. Instead of going to the police Raismunda hides the body and creates a story that Paco left the two for good. She then finds a new lease in life when she takes over and runs his restaurant business.
Meanwhile the other daughter, Sole (Lola Dueñas), has met what can only be the ghost of their dead mother, Irene (Carmen Maura). They actually move in and work together on Sole’s burgeoning hair salon. These two storylines collide when Raimunda finds out about Sole’s visions of her mother and is forced to confront the dark family secrets that has caused Irene to enter their lives again.
The climax and revelations are the stuff of Shakespearean melodrama. And the effect of events in the past are cleverly related to Raimunda’s actions in the present. The salacious details are handled effortlessly and with some wit, but considering the emotional impact of the events I was left feeling a little short changed. I wanted to feel the emotions as say, Lars Von Trier would have played them, instead Almodovar plays it down.
The film looks like his other films. He frames his women with inspiring reverence. Only Fellini rivals his love of women on screen. Men are scarce in the film and the one man who isn’t a lowlife degenerate is a handsome film production manager who uses Raimundo’s restaurant for catering. They come close to falling in love, but that subplot is sadly discarded midway through the film. Like “All About My Mother” the colours are bright and saturated, recreating an old Hollywood Technicolor feel. The music at times feels like Bernard Herrman, but it's unusually subdued and barely audible most of time. It’s a missed opportunity to up the intensity.
But Pedro has done it his way, and as I said before, I never really saw the magic in his films that others have. I will recommend “Volver” to anyone looking to discover Almodovar or anyone interested in European cinema, it’s not just my bag. Enjoy
Buy it here: Volver
Here’s Penelope Cruz singing in a lovely scene:
Monday, 25 June 2007
A Mighty Heart (2007) dir. Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman
I hope people can look past the super-celebrity aspect of Angelina Jolie and producer Brad Pitt and watch “A Mighty Heart” with fresh eyes. The making of the film and the movements of Jolie and Pitt’s children received as much press as its release. Backlash against Jolie and Pitt’s large presence in India (Jolie’s bodyguards were arrested for scuffling with paparazzi) were expounded and made for celebrity gossip fodder. So let’s review the film, not the couple.
“A Mighty Heart,” is a terrific film about the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The film tells the story from the point of view of his dedicated and composed wife, Marianne (Jolie) who patiently manages to navigate through the false rumours, politicking, and worldwide press fervour surrounding the case and focus on finding Daniel. Dan Futterman is well cast as Daniel whom we get to know in the first act of the film and periodically in flashback throughout. He is a soft-spoken dedicated journalist and husband. The Pearls travel to Pakistan the day after Sept 11 to report on the activities of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. When he gets a chance to interview Sheikh Gilani, a notorious terrorist, he knows he’s entering dangerous territory. Everyone Pearl talks to warms him but Pearl is ambitious and puts the story ahead of his safety. The night Pearl is to meet Galani, he disappears, never to return home.
When the Pakistani police become involved a complex web of terrorist connections slowly unravels. Like “All the President’s Men” one suspect leads to another, and another and another etc etc. It's so complex Mariane and her friend Asra (Archie Panjabi) have to use a whiteboard to keep track of everything. We aren’t meant to follow or understand the trail, only to know that Pearl’s kidnapping was not random but a targeted and premeditated act of terrorism involving a large network of people.
The film is directed by the multitalented Michael Winterbottom, a British filmmaker, who can work in any genre, but who recently has developed a naturalistic style of on-the-fly street filmmaking. Winterbottom and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind shoot the film with local non-actors, in authentic locations with documentary-like believability. Watch, “24 Hour Party People”, “In this World”, and “Nine Songs” to see the evolution of this style. The result is a film with 100% authenticity.
The film is edited with great pace. The lead-up up to Pearl’s kidnapping is told with a fractured non-linear montage technique. Winterbottom enters conversations already in progress and exits before they are finished. At times this can be frustrating, especially when a new character is introduced but whom we don’t get to know until many scenes later. For example when first see Will Patton, who plays an American authority, we only get a few lines out of him before Winterbottom cuts away. It’s a shame because Patton is a good actor and I wanted to hear what he had to say. So this style can be obtrusive to the story, but since this is Mariane’s point of view I guess the motivation was to mimic the chaos of the event.
Winterbottom avoids all possible Hollywood traps, unlike, say, Ed (“Blood Diamond”) Zwick who would have turned this story into an action film. It would have been easy to inject internal conflict into the film by portraying the Pakistani police as backwards and unaccommodating to the Americans, instead the captain of the Pakistani counterterrorism unit who leads the investigation is as smart, dedicated and unwavering in his search as any of the Americans. Winterbottom is also able to create tension and suspense without resorting to guns, overt violence or action scenes. There’s a couple of moments of gunfire, but it’s not embellished.
Much of the credit of the film should go to Brad Pitt, who had the courage to put the film into Winterbottom’s hands as opposed to someone like Ed Zwick’s. As a result “A Mighty Heart” may be a less accessible film, but it’s been told the best way possible, by preserving the integrity of Daniel and Mariane Pearl and all those involved in bringing the terrorists to justice. Enjoy.
Sunday, 24 June 2007
Eagle vs. Shark (2007) dir. Taika Cohen
Starring: Loren Horsley, Jemaine Clement
“Eagle vs. Shark” is a small New Zealand film that has made the long journey to North America. It’s rare for an authentic non-Peter Jackson kiwi film to get a theatrical release in North America. So there must have been something special about the film I thought. Perhaps it’s a unique cultural export of the quirky New Zealand sense of humour. Instead, I was surprised to find out it was “Napoleon Dynamite” with kiwi accents. I guess I forgot about the whole globalized world thing.
Lily is a shy waif who works in a fast food burger joint. After years of obsessive longing of a frequent customer, she finally decides to gather up the courage to make contact with the guy. The guy is Jarrod, a completely maladjusted loser who lives in his own mind. Lily gets invited to Jarrod’s video/costume party. Lily arrives as her favourite animal (shark). Jarrod is dressed as, of course, eagle. The party is a new realm of loserdom - an annual video game fighting tournament to see who gets to challenge Jarrod as the master gamer. Lily proves to be worthy and trashes her opponents. When she goes up against Jarrod she is so smitten with him she blows the match on purpose. Lily’s persistence pays off and soon they enter into the most matter-of-fact courtships in cinema history. You have to watch the scene – it’s completely unromantic yet cute and touching at the same time.
Lily travels with Jarrod to his quaint seaside hometown where Jarrod is to train for a real fight with his high school nemesis who bullied him. Lily fits in well with Jarrod’s equally screwed-up family and friends. His sister and brother-in-law sell overstocked athletic apparel from the early 90’s. It’s pathetic and hilarious. The more she learns about Jarrod she becomes as frightened as she is sympathetic to his pathetic life.
The film follows some standard ups and downs of the romantic comedy genre, but at its heart it’s unfortunately a “Napoleon Dynamite” clone, with a dash of “About Schmidt” right down to the costumes, portrait-like shot selection, and quirky electronic and acoustic music score. I guess all these films stem from Wes Anderson, who made loserdom cool. But of course, Anderson deepened and broadened the emotional quotient way beyond both “Dynamite” and “Shark”.
I think both films love their characters equally, but one thing “Eagle” has over “Dynamite” is a backstory. Over the course of the film we come to learn why Jarrod has created this insular world in which he has declared himself king. The rejection of his mother and the suicide of his older brother left him scarred and damaged. Jarrod’s retreat is extreme, but it does provide context for his loserdom. Lily, whom the film’s point of view is taken from, unfortunately isn’t given a backstory. And her obsessive love for Jarrod is never explained, and is completely arbitrary. She has a gigantic heart that desperate wants to love, but why she choose the crass, obnoxious, and egotistical Jarrod is out of character. Perhaps she recognizes his flaws and sees his inner beauty, or perhaps she’s impressed by his ability to deflect all criticism and be happy with himself.
In the end credits I was surprised to see that the film was developed through the Sundance Institute. In fact, “Napoleon Dynamite” premiered at Sundance the same year Taika Cohen’s Oscar nominated short “Two Cars, One Night”. So maybe it was a conscious attempt to recreate that experience. Overall, though it may not be the ‘little film that could’ “Eagle vs. Shark” is a worthy knock off. Enjoy
Saturday, 23 June 2007
eXistenZ (1999) dir. David Cronenberg
Starring: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Don McKellar, Willem Dafoe
“eXistenZ” is one of the rare failures for David Cronenberg. Though I didn’t like “Crash” I think it succeeded as a controversial conversation starter, and all around kinky mood-piece. But “eXistenZ,” which appears to have been made to be a more mainstream and accessible film, unfortunately fails on most levels.
Set in the future Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a new age game designer – virtual reality-type games played via the organic processes of the body. She is demonstrating a new version of her game to a test group. Allegra’s new gaming techniques have made her a celebrity, but she has also created a legion of radical dissidents, called “Realists” who disapprove of the unethical aspects of the game. The “Realists” infiltrate the test and manage to kill off a few of the gamers, but Allegra and her PR man, Ted Pikul (Jude Law) manage to escape. While on the run Allegra and Ted enter the game to try and recover lost data from the disruption (I think).
The design of the game system is classic Cronenberg – organic materials made from body parts of other animals. Repairs to the game pod are performed like surgery by doctors. The connection between mind and body and the sensory experience of the game is a thought-provoking and somewhat plausible scenario. These are just the peripherals to the story though; the actual narrative plot of the film feels terribly recycled and uneventful.
Allegra and Ted’s journey takes them through a “Grand Theft Auto”-like world of smarmy villains, and double-agents. Together they must navigate their way through the game and back into reality. Sufficient jeopardy and stakes for Ted and Allegra are never there because we know they’re in the game, and despite all the manufactured rules, I know they can always get out of the gaming world.
Essentially it’s a pale comparison of “Total Recall”, “The Matrix” and “Dark City”. Because the concept is old news, we can clearly see how the film will end, and predict the twists. The climax which involves a badly staged and acted confrontation with Callum Keith Rennie, Jude Law and Ian Holm, feels as if the filmmakers were rushing to shoot the scene and get all the information wrapped up that one night. And, of course, the film makes a left turn in the final moments which is supposed to surprise us, but instead becomes predictable in its unpredictability.
And despite one erotic scene, we don’t even get to see Jennifer Jason Leigh get it on with Jude Law. Considering Cronenberg’s track record, that was the only unexpected twist – no kinky sex.
Buy it here: eXistenZ
Beware: SPOILERS in this clips:
Friday, 22 June 2007
AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies
Updating the list of greatest American films from the 1998 list was a great idea. The AFI (American Film Institute) does the job very well providing us with a decent (though somewhat sappy) 3-hour program showing clips from all the films with interviews with filmmakers and celebrities commenting on them, though many of the interviews were from the ‘archives’ of 1998.
The list was created from a poll of 400 ‘nominated’ films sent out to “1,500 leaders from across the American film community - screenwriters, directors, actors, producers, cinematographers, editors, executives, film historians and critics.” The 1998 list was a fun endeavour, which caused a lot of debates, and now the AFI has repeated the poll to see how the cinematic landscape has changed in 10 years.
By updating the list the AFI appears to be taking a page from the BFI (British Film Institute), who administer the “Sight and Sound” polls which compiles a top ten list every ten years. The key difference being that the BFI includes international films as well.
The results are in, and it’s no surprise that “Citizen Kane” has stayed on top. In fact, it’s highly unlikely “Kane” will be bested in our lifetime. The legend and cache behind the film is so big, it would take a monumental new masterpiece in the next 10 years for something to usurp “Kane”.
The biggest improvement was John Ford’s “The Searchers”, which leaped from 96 to 12. Wow! It’s a great film, but why the new attitude for the film? I’m baffled, but also pleased. “Raging Bull” got some more respect by moving up from 24 to 4. Good on Marty. This is clearly due to the Scorsese-mania since the big wins by “The Departed” at awards season. The exclusion of Redford’s “Ordinary People” also reaffirms that despite not winning the big trophy “Raging Bull” was the film of the year in 1980. The other large jump into the top ten is “Vertigo”, which is generally considered to be Hitchcock’s masterpiece. This is no surprise. I’m still shocked there’s so many “Sunset Boulevard” fans voting. Don’t get me wrong it’s a good film, but number 16 (actually up from 12, ten years ago!) and trumping the likes of “Apocalypse Now”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and more?
The silent films got a good dose of respect as well: “City Lights” moved up 65 places to 11. Buster Keaton’s “The General” entered the list at 18. “Sunrise” also enters the list at 82.
Newer films obviously need some time to ‘gain interest’. But recent additions of “The Sixth Sense,” “Do the Right Thing” and “Shawshank Redemption” and “Blade Runner” will likely move up the pecking order in the next few decades.
I was surprised to see that “Pulp Fiction” stayed virtually the same at 94. I guess most people still prefer “Forrest Gump”. A shame.
If you're wondering how the films break down, here's some analysis:
Pre 1920 - 1
1920's - 4
1930's - 11
1940's - 10
1950's - 17
1960's - 17
1970's - 20
1980's - 8
1990's - 11
2000's - 1
Most Frequent Directors:
Steven Spielberg - 5
Billy Wilder - 4
Alfred Hitchcock - 4
Stanley Kubrick - 4
Frank Capra - 3
Charlie Chaplin - 3
Francis Coppola - 3
John Huston - 3
Martin Scorsese - 3
And 11 directors had 2 films.
There are always the usual number of cynics who despise these types of rankings, but I’m not a hater. For me, the value of this list serves not to make the final word on which films are better, but as a means to reacquaint people with the classics that deserve to be rediscovered.
I was, of course, rooting for some personal favourites. Though I knew the list would largely look the same as ten years ago, but I was crossing my fingers that Terrence Malick or David Lynch would get some love. Guess not.
Here’s the full list (note, I’ve included the 1998 ranking and its rise or fall in parentheses beside:
1 Citizen Kane (1) (+0)
2 The Godfather (3) (+1)
3 Casablanca (2) (-1)
4 Raging Bull (24) (+20)
5 Singin' In the Rain (10) (+5)
6 Gone With the Wind (4) (-2)
7 Lawrence of Arabia (5) (-2)
8 Schindler's List (9) (+1)
9 Vertigo (61) (+52)
10 Wizard of Oz (6) (-4)
11 City Lights (76) (+65)
12 The Searchers (96) (+84)
13 Star Wars (15) (+2)
14 Psycho (18) (+4)
15 2001: A Space Odyssey (22) (+7)
16 Sunset Blvd. (12) (-4)
17 The Graduate (7) (-10)
18 The General (New)
19 On the Waterfront (8) (-11)
20 It's A Wonderful Life (11) (-9)
21 Chinatown (19) (-2)
22 Some Like It Hot (14) (-8)
23 The Grapes of Wrath (21) (-2)
24 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (25) (+1)
25 To Kill a Mockingbird (34) (+9)
26 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (29) (+3)
27 High Noon (33) (+6)
28 All About Eve (16) (-12)
29 Double Indemnity (38) (+9)
30 Apocalypse Now (28) (-2)
31 The Maltese Falcon (23) (-8)
32 The Godfather Part 2 (32) (+0)
33 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (20) (-13)
34 Snow White And the Seven Dwarfs (49) (+15)
35 Annie Hall (31) (-4)
36 The Bridge on the River Kwai (13) (-23)
37 The Best Years of Our Lives (37) (+0)
38 Treasure Of the Sierra Madre (30) (-8)
39 Dr. Strangelove (26) (-13)
40 The Sound of Music (55) (+15)
41 King Kong (43) (+2)
42 Bonnie And Clyde (27) (-15)
43 Midnight Cowboy (36) (-7)
44 The Philadelphia Story (51) (+7)
45 Shane (69) (+24)
46 It Happened One Night (35) (-11)
47 A Streetcar Named Desire (45) (-2)
48 Rear Window (42) (-6)
49 Intolerance (New)
50 The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (New)
51 West Side Story (41) (-10)
52 Taxi Driver (47) (-5)
53 The Deer Hunter (79) (+26)
54 M*A*S*H (56) (+2)
55 North By Northwest (40) (-15)
56 Jaws (48) (-8)
57 Rocky (78) (+21)
58 The Gold Rush (74) (+16)
59 Nashville (New)
60 Duck Soup (85) (+25)
61 Sullivan's Travels (New)
62 American Graffiti (77) (+15)
63 Cabaret (New)
64 Network (66) (+2)
65 The African Queen (17) (-48)
66 Raiders of The Lost Ark (60) (-6)
67 Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (New)
68 Unforgiven (98) (+30)
69 Tootsie (62) (-7)
70 A Clockwork Orange (46) (-24)
71 Saving Private Ryan (New)
72 The Shawshank Redemption (New)
73 Butch Cassidy And the Sundance Kid (50) (-23)
74 The Silence of the Lambs (65) (-9)
75 In the Heat of the Night (New)
76 Forrest Gump (71) (-5)
77 All the President's Men (New)
78 Modern Times (81) (+3)
79 The Wild Bunch (80) (+1)
80 The Apartment (93) (+13)
81 Spartacus (New)
82 Sunrise (New)
83 Titanic (New)
84 Easy Rider (88) (+4)
85 A Night at The Opera (New)
86 Platoon (83) (-3)
87 12 Angry Men (New)
88 Bringing Up Baby (97) (+9)
89 The Sixth Sense (New)
90 Swing Time (New)
91 Sophie's Choice (New)
92 Goodfellas (94) (+2)
93 The French Connection (70) (-23)
94 Pulp Fiction (95) (+1)
95 The Last Picture Show (New)
96 Do the Right Thing (New)
97 Blade Runner (New)
98 Yankee Doodle Dandy (100) (+2)
99 Toy Story (New)
100 Ben-Hur (72) (-28)
I mentioned the Sight & Sound poll which includes international films as well. And traditionally these polls have been dominated by international films, but you may be surprised that six of the films mentioned here are on the most recent top 10 list conducted in 2002. Here’s that list:
1. Citizen Kane (U.S.)
2. Vertigo (U.S.)
3. La Regle de Jeu (Rules of the Game) (France)
4. The Godfather I & II (U.S.)
5. Tokyo Story (Japan)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (U.S.)
7. Battleship Potemkin (USSR)
8. Sunrise (U.S.)
9. Fellini’s 8 ½ (Italy)
10. Singin’ in the Rain (U.S.)
Buy it here: AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies: American Film Institute (Complete Edition)
Thursday, 21 June 2007
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) dir. Godfrey Reggio
“Koyaanisqatsi” is essential viewing for all. For those unaware it’s a non-traditional documentary made in 1982 using then state of the art high speed cameras to translate visually and aurally our increasing disconnect with the natural world. The word “Koyaanisqatsi” translated from the Hopi language means, “Life Out of Balance”. We are currently in an age of popular and important social and political documentaries. Anyone interested in films such as “An Inconvenient Truth”, or “Manufactured Landscapes” or “The Corporation” has to see this. DVD will suffice, but if there’s ever a rep cinema screening in your city, you must make some time for this film.
“Koyaanisqatsi” features only images and music - the lush and awe-inspiring cinematography of Ron Fricke and the potent music of Philip Glass. The film is structured in roughly ten acts, starting off showing off the awesome construction of nature – the Grand Canyon. Untouched by man, the natural wonder truly is a site to behold. Then the film shows off the beauty and grace of the wind, water and clouds. Using timelapse photography Reggio shows the movements of the clouds in the sky as they move and sway like ghosts gliding through the air. The film then abruptly shows the power of man and its intervention into nature’s wondrous constructions. Machines and explosions destroying the land, the patterns of crops show man’s manipulation of the land. The sequence ends with the ironic beauty of an awesome extended shot of an atomic explosion and billowing mushroom cloud.
The film kicks into another gear when we are brought into urban gentrification. Images such as a plane emerging as a mirage on a runway, the dramatic contrast of a sunbathing beach next to a nuclear powerplant, the patterns of cars flowing across a highway, the extreme slo-motion images of pedestrians walking to and fro are beautiful images which allow us to watch ourselves from a unique point of view. Fricke manages to capture shots with unbelievable visual clarity and depth of field, the smallest details in the background far distances away are clear and distinct as the foreground. Philip Glass’ music gradually ramps up in intensity over the next 3 acts. By the end of the lengthy sequence we are being bombarded with a sledgehammer of visuals and sound – epileptics beware.
After the climax, catching our breath, we are brought into a beautiful set of slo-motion close ups of various people in New York doing mundane tasks. There’s something compelling about observing someone unaware of the camera, or the expressionless face of someone staring straight at us. It’s so simple but contrasted with the images we’ve just seen in the film, it’s absolutely beautiful.
The final image in the film wasn’t shot by the crew, instead it’s a single long take of a rocket falling from the sky. The camera holds on the exploding rocket for such a long time and pushes in close to a single fragment of metal falling from the sky. It always reminded me of when you stare at something for a long time, it morphs into something abstract. The same occurs with this tiny piece of metal. You just have to watch it to understand.
The film is as much a product of Philip Glass as Reggio and Fricke. His opening keyboard chords are brooding, ominous and Wagner-like. “Koyaanistqatsi” was edited and created in time with the music. In other words, the film organically was created and influenced by Glass’ music. In 1982, the Glass sound was virtually unheard of in film and for much of the 80’s and 90’s it was a rare for Glass to score a film. But since the 00’s arguably Glass’s scores have become repetitive and ubiquitous. Can you tell the difference between “The Hours”, “The Illusionist” and “Notes From a Scandal”? And so his score for this film is a reminder of when it was an honour to have a Philip Glass score. (BTW: apparently he’s scoring a Woody Allen movie next. Huh?)
Since 1983 countless music videos (including the Strokes’ “Hard to Explain”), documentaries, and commercials used and reused the techniques and even the same footage as “Koyaanisqatsi”. But after 25 years the film is still as powerful as ever. Two sequels were made by Reggio – “Powaqqaytsi” and “Noqoyqatsi” as well the Ron Fricke film “Baraka” – and though each has its merits, arguably neither could live up to the standard set by the original. “Koyaanisqatsi” is still the best. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Koyaanisqatsi - Life Out of Balance
Wednesday, 20 June 2007
The Good Shepherd (2006) dir. Robert De Niro
Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, John Turturro, William Hurt, Michael Gambon
“The Good Shepherd” is a deliberately paced spy epic about the birth of the CIA. It’s well made but terribly slow and uneventful. It’s told with the intensity of a whisper and rarely bumps up or down off its flatlined narrative path.
The film opens in 1961 during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), the CIA operative who appears to be in charge, has just learned the mission has failed, and his Cuban exiles have been captured by Castro’s military. The powers at be assume a mole leaked the attack to Castro. The film will periodically return to this period time and again throughout the film as the investigation to expose the mole progresses.
The majority of the film is spent tracing the steps to how Edward Wilson got to that point in his life. He is a Yale graduate and an inductee into their secret ‘Skull and Bones’ society. From there he is recruited into a secret intelligence task force operating overseas during WWII. The agency would eventually morph into the CIA. Damon seems to be the perfect fit for the job; he’s quiet, unassuming, and virtually humourless. Right away he’s told not to trust anybody. So the question becomes, is he even allowed to trust his superiors, or his wife, or his family? Damon is forced to confront all of these difficulty realities of his job.
A major part of the film is his family. Damon has a one-night stand and impregnates Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie). But Damon has a girlfriend, Laura (Tammy Blanchard), and so, against the feelings of his heart he “does the right thing” and marries Russell. Hmm Angelina Jolie or Tammy Blanchard?? This decision requires a large stretch of plausibility. Damon lives the rest of his life married to his job, leaving his wife and son to care for themselves. But Wilson sees the secrets he keeps from his family as the only way of protecting them against the possibility of being compromised or blackmailed. Despite the fractured domestic life, Damon loves his son unconditionally and so when his son grows up and wants to follow in Dad’s footsteps there’s the rub. It’s becomes apparent that the hand that had fed Wilson his whole life is about to bite him.
The sheer length of the film (167mins) and the slow groundwork of subtle plotting works for the film, but it requires much patience to make it through to the end. As mentioned, rarely does the film raise a voice, or increase the pace or intensity. Though it’s deliberate not to exaggerate the action or suspense, the film is left largely vacant and devoid of dramatic substance. Edward Wilson is enigmatic and distant, much like his Bourne character, but Paul Greengrass and Doug Liman know how to craft an action sequence to turn up the heat for the audience. Sadly, De Niro needs a lesson in that.
The film is terrifically shot by Robert Richardson, using a combination of the underlit style of “The Godfather” and the dark shadowy look of the 1940’s hard boiled noir films. The brightest light in most of the frames are rim lights around people heads, or across their hats. The consistency of style in creating the intended mood of the film is admirable.
De Niro has made a noble attempt to create a spy film that is as cold as the Cold War. And I think the film could have been salvageable in the editing room. Some punchier music, and tighter editing in several key sequences could have livened the film up considerably.
Buy it here: The Good Shepherd (Widescreen Edition)
Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Breach (2007) dir. Billy Ray
Starring: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillipe, Laura Linney
“Breach” has been marketed as a cat-and-mouse espionage thriller. It’s a false campaign, because it clearly aspires to be more character-driven than plot-driven. Because it’s based on a true story, it feels as if the filmmakers were trying to stay too true to the actual events rather than taking creative license to inject the film with palpable tension. As a result the film disappointingly lacks the suspense to elevate the film up to the standard Ray set for his first feature “Shattered Glass”.
Much of the tension of the film is zapped with the opening scene. It’s real footage of a press conference where then Attorney-General John Ashcroft announces they’ve captured Robert Hanssen the worst mole and security breach in United States history. Ok, we know it’s based on a true story, but now we know the ending. The film plays out the two months prior to his arrest and the surveillance tactics it took to bring him down.
Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) approaches FBI newbie Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe) with an assignment to run surveillance on Hanssen who is suspected of sexual deviance. Hanssen, played with intensity by Chris Cooper, is a tough S.O.B., a computer analyst with a superiority complex and a take-no-shit attitude. He’s also a devout Catholic with strict conservative family values. At first Hanssen is tough on the kid, treating him like a second rate secretary, lecturing him about the failings of the antiquated security systems, and expounding about his consistent mistreatment and lack of recognition over the years. Just when you think O’Neill would be distancing himself from the bull, he actually becomes closer and closer to the man and comes to realize how much he has in common with him.
O’Neill is a new husband with a devoted wife, who anxiously wants to “make agent” soon in order for him to have enough money to start a family. Hanssen respects his faith and personal ethics and so he slowly gives his trust to O’Neill. As O’Neill and his wife get closer to Hanssen and his wife, O’Neill starts to question the validity of the accusations against him. At this point Burroughs is forced to reveal the full extent of Hanssen’s malfeasance – a fifteen year career of sharing top secret information with Soviet and former Soviet intelligence officers.
As O’Neill gets deeper into his work he alienates his wife. The domestic disruption is handled fairly and realistically but it’s a standard for the genre and doesn’t sufficiently elevate the intensity of the film. In fact, the stakes are rarely raised for O’Neill. Other than the threat of the breakdown of his marriage O’Neill is continually supported by the Bureau and so rarely do we feel any kind of dramatic danger from his work. After the midway point in the film there is nothing else to be revealed in the film for the audience. All the cards are on the table and the film follows a steady path toward the end.
I must respect Billy Ray for sticking to his guns, laying off the embellishments and, I assume, telling the real story as it happened. As a result the film feels flat and uneventful. We never feel the full evidence of Hanssen’s evil-deeds. We are only told the information as exposition and as flashbacks. As a result Hanssen’s motives and contradictions are never clear and so we never feel any threat. If, say, O’Neill’s doubts were allayed by his own investigation and discovery of Hanssen’s actions then the film could have been more interesting and revelatory. Too bad it didn’t happen that way in real life. But then again, not all real life stories need to be told on film.
“Shattered Glass” was another story of deception, and though the stakes were much less than national security, Billy Ray was able to create more tension and more intriguing relationships between his characters. I hate to say it but the film needed a little bit more “No Way Out” and less “60 Minutes.”
Buy it here: Breach (Widescreen Edition)
Monday, 18 June 2007
Go (1999) dir. Doug Liman
Starring: Sarah Polley, Katie Holmes, Scott Wolf and many more
Sure “Go” was made on the down curve of the rave scene, sure it blatantly feels like a “Pulp Fiction” rip-off made five years too late, but it actually is a well-made unpredictable and highly entertaining film. Doug “Swingers” Liman directs John August’s first feature screenplay with energy and liveliness. It makes 100 mins fly by like five minutes. Check it out.
I’m sure the film was pitched as “Dazed and Confused” or “Pulp Fiction” for the raver generation. “Go” is structured as three intersecting stories revolving around one rambunctious night in the lives of a dozen California young people. The first story is given the screen title (a la “Pulp Fiction”) ‘Ronna’, after Sarah Polley’s character. Ronna works a dead end cashier’s job at the local supermarket. She’s broke and is about to be evicted. But a plan is hatched when two guys ask her where they can score drugs for a big Xmas rave party. Ronna’s not a drug dealer, but she knows one and seizes the opportunity to make some quick cash. Things don’t go as planned, and soon she’s forced to think on her feet and evade the real drug dealers and a set of undercover cops.
Story number two involves a group of four guys and their spur of the moment trip to Las Vegas. When Marcus (Taye Diggs) is presented with an opportunity to steal a Ferrari for the night he and his pal Simon (Desmond Askew) embark on their own wild night of strippers, guns, and mobsters.
Story number three, titled “Adam and Zack” involves the two guys looking for drugs at the grocery store, played by Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr. As we follow their path of the evening we learn they are actors who have been caught by the police with drugs and are now NARCs attempting to nab Ronna.
I’ll end the summary here because going into too many details of the connections between the three stories would ruin the fun. But the highlights are definitely William Fichtner’s hilarious ulterior motives, Katie Holmes twisty relationship with Timothy Olyphant, and anytime Sarah Polley is on the screen. The dialogue is clever if a tad derivative of Tarantino, but the pace and unpredictability keeps the excitement at peak levels the entire film.
The film has kinda faded away into the cinema dead zone. Rarely is it ever discussed or talked about as one of the best post “Pulp Fiction” films. But Hollywood certainly hasn’t forgotten. John August, the writer, has gone on to write some major Hollywood blockbusters including “Charlie’s Angels”, and three Tim Burton films, “Big Fish, “Corpse Bride” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. And his directorial debut, “The Nines” impressed many at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Good on him. Enjoy “Go” again.
Buy it here: Go (Special Edition)
Sunday, 17 June 2007
First Blood (1982) dir. Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna
The Rambo films have an unfair stigma to them. It’s become the symbol of the bloated 80’s action franchise where the body count matters more than character and story. The consensus is both right and wrong. And while the films are sparse in story and plot, you might be surprised at the depth of the main character. I don’t want to overanalyze it, but if watch “First Blood” again, in addition to it being a compelling action film, you’ll find John Rambo a fascinating character.
Rambo enters a small milling town in Oregon. He’s looking for a friend of his, a Vietnam vet whom he served with in the war. He approaches the wife of the man and asks her if he’s around. Johns is cordial and tells her a few fun stories of their friendship. The woman bursts John’s bubble when she tells him he’s dead. Died of cancer. Sly’s reaction says it all. He’s now the last of his beloved platoon. All his friends are gone, and his world is completely shattered.
While walking into town for a bite to eat he’s stopped by the local sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who’s immediately standoffish. Will recognizes his army jacket, unkempt hair and quickly decides he doesn’t want ‘his type’ in the town. It’s typical of the prejudice against Vietnam veterans. The interaction between Dennehy and Sly is a well-performed exchange of dialogue with underlying subtext between the lines. In this scene, without saying it overtly, we understand Rambo’s entire painful backstory.
When Teasle pushes, John pushes back. The war of wills culminates into John’s arrest for vagrancy. At the station the other officers are even more confrontational. They push John to the limit, and when he snaps, it’s the beginning of the end for the cops and the town. John fights off the entire police station and escapes into the wilderness. Teasle and his men chase after him but John’s survival skills are too much for them to handle. The search for John grows larger and soon the State Police and National Guard are brought in to help.
John is a highly damaged psychotic. He is in complete war mode and he approaches the confrontation in the way he was taught (and likely brainwashed) by the army. The only way to stop the rampage is with the help of John’s platoon commander, Col Trautman (Richard Crenna channeling the rhythms of William Shatner). Trautman is much the same as Rambo. He’s tough and uncompromising and pushes Will as hard as John does. But when Trautman finally meets up with John at the end of film, he finally realizes that John’s actions are in due in large part to Trautman. Like Frankenstein’s monster turning against his creator, or a Terminator robot with no ‘off switch.’
Apart from a few of creative liberties, the action is mostly authentic. Shot in the forests of British Columbia, the cold, barren and uncompromising environment is real and believable. It’s remarkable, Sly hardly speaks a word in the second act. I didn’t do a running count, but he probably has under 15 lines in the whole film. When he’s by himself, he’s all action and no talk. If the film were made today, he would likely have been given “Wilson-like” character (from “Cast Away”) or a hostage sidekick to trade lines with.
If “First Blood” were made today it would be a totally different film. It was made at a unique time and place. “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” had much to say about the experience of veterans of the war returning home and fitting back in with society. Though “First Blood” is the extreme case, in my opinion, it has as much emotional resonance as either of these films.
Let me end by discussing Stallone’s final speech. The general opinion is that it repeats plainly what has been said already in subtext throughout the film. And it’s certainly not a profound statement we haven’t heard in other films either. But for this character and this film Rambo needed to say these words, and in contrast to his complete silence and repressed emotions throughout the film, the over-the-top release is cathartic and powerful. I do believe Stallone is a good actor and I applaud his performance, including his final statement. Enjoy.
Buy it here: First Blood
PS The Lions Gate Films/Maple Pictures DVD contains a rather good audio commentary by Stallone. Check it out.
This trailer, is actually funny in a Grindhouse sort of way:
Saturday, 16 June 2007
Daddy’s Little Girls (2006) dir. Tyler Perry
Starring: Idris Elba, Gabrielle Union
Tyler Perry is a superstar hitmaker in the African-American community who wrote a series of successful stage plays about family life in the black America. He scored a megahit with 2003’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman”. Next up on his slate of films is “Daddy’s Little Girls” – somewhat of a departure from his grandmother in drag characters he has used for “Diary” and his “Madea” films. The result is a noble effort to create a wholesome family film with positive values, but unfortunately it turns out to be a substandard formula film.
Monty (Idris Elba) is a humble mechanic trying to make ends meet, and support his three little girls from a previous marriage. His ex-wife Jennifer (Tasha Smith) is a pain in the ass drug dealer who’s continually trying to reclaim custody of her kids. At the outset the girls live with Jennifer’s mother, whom we find out is dying of cancer. Before she dies she tells Monty that she wants him to take care of the kids, and not to let Jennifer, her own daughter, retain custody. After she dies the girls come to live with Monty, but when a small household fire puts the girls in the hospital child services see it as an act of parental negligence and shifts custody to Jennifer. It now becomes a bitter custody battle in and out of court for Monty to prove he’s a worthy father.
Meanwhile Monty, has been assigned to be a driver for a young hotshot lawyer, Julia (Gabriella Union). Julia’s a sophisticated workaholic and only has time to date if she’s been set up with a blind date. Of course the blind dates she has are horrible and soon she realizes the man of her dreams has been in front of her face the whole time – Monty. Julia and Monty strike up a loving relationship, but because of the oil and water differences in upbringing, lifestyle and education the road to bliss is difficult.
Since it’s a formula film, it’s not hard to fit the pieces of the puzzle together and figure out the rest of plot and the outcome. As a result it’s extremely predictable. The major failure is the gigantic plot hole of why Jennifer even wants custody of her kids anyways. In the backstory, she’s never wanted them around, and when she does get custody, she’s a complete bitch to them and is constantly telling them to scram. The film is burdened by a lot of on-the-nose dialogue, obvious plotting and horrendous acting. I know it’s not “The English Patient”, but there’s always room for subtly and subtext. Hell, tune into tomorrow’s review of “First Blood” – even that film has more subtlety.
The best part of the film is the chemistry between Julia and Monty. Gabriella Union is terrific in anything she’s done and she perfectly cast as the sophisticated but vulnerable love interest. And Idris Elba who plays Monty, whom I’ve never seen before, is charismatic and magnetic as the loving guilt-ridden father with a touch of romanticism.
The film wasn’t without it’s opportunities to be more than just the cookie-cutter domestic drama that it is. It wastes the talents of Union and Elba by forcing itself into providing the family values over providing original material and thoughtful storytelling.
Buy it here: Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls (Widescreen Edition)
Friday, 15 June 2007
There's a great tradition of directors' frequent collaborations with their trusted cinematographers. I've sampled some of the best long term collaborations which involved at least three films made together. I've chosen each of these for their artistic and cinematic contribution the world of cinema. So I'm not judging these on the length of collaboration but the quality. Please read, and as always send through your comments. Enjoy.
Robert Richardson-Oliver Stone
The Stone-Richardson relationship goes back to Stone’s second film “Salvador”. Richardson collaborated on the Oscar-winning “Platoon” and “Wall Street”. But it wasn’t until “Talk Radio” that Richardson’s style was born. Under the guidance of Stone Richardson developed a hazy-hard lit style, where he frequently used hard light above actors, which blew out parts of the frame. Stone and Richardson would use this technique with virtually all of their films from “Talk Radio” to “U-Turn”. With “The Doors” or “Natural Born Killers” for example this technique complimented the drug-hazed hallucinatory theme of the films. Maybe there was a falling out between the two because Stone and Richardson haven’t worked together since U-Turn. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Stone’s work has been going down hill ever since.
U Turn (1997)
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Heaven & Earth (1993)
The Doors (1991)
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Talk Radio (1988)
Wall Street (1987)
Freddie Young – David Lean
After filming “Bridge on the River Kwai” with John Hildyard Lean hired veteran Freddie Young to lens his next series of epics. “Lawrence of Arabia” was their first film together. The film won Freddie his first Oscar and the film would go on to become one of the most beloved films of all time. Young and Lean managed to use the wide and desolate desert landscape to their advantage. Shooting in 70mm, they were able to frame a character as a tiny figure against a wide desert background, and still have him big enough on screen for the audience to see. The famous introduction of Omar Sharif into the film is a classic but even more impressive is the raid on Aqaba. As hundreds of camels raid the city, we see the action from a magnificent long pan from above. Young and Lean would get grander and grander with their next two films – “Doctor Zhivago” and “Ryan’s Daughter” both of which net Young two more Oscars as well. Lean would take a long hiatus after “Ryan’s Daughter”, and so their working relationship ended there.
Ryan’s Daughter (1970)
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Here’s the Aqaba sequence:
Christopher Doyle – Wong Kar Wai
Christopher Doyle is an Aussie who left the country at 18 to travel and immerse himself in all cultures of the world. He landed in China and learned Mandarin and Cantonese. After making “Days of Being Wild”, Wai’s second film, this was clearly the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Doyle and Wai soon developed a unique style of art-street films that would influence many of the cool-slick looks of today. Doyle and Wai would shoot in small cramped apartments, lit with Hong Kong-famous fluorescent and neon lights. Fluorescent light creates a different look on film, and when not colour corrected creates a green-tinted hue. This style has been copped by virtually every ‘slick’ film made since.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Happy Together (1997)
Fallen Angels (1995)
Ashes of Time (1994)
Chungking Express (1994)
Days of Being Wild (1991)
Beautiful movement and colours from "Fallen Angels":
Janusz Kaminsky – Steven Spielberg
Prior to the 90’s Steven Spielberg had used several DOPs to lens his films – Vilmos Zsigmond, Bill Butler, and William Fraker. Allen Daviau, who made six films with Spielberg, was his preferred collaborator for a long time. But after working with Polish DOP Janusz Kaminsky on “Schindler’s List” in 1993 they’ve been soul mates ever since. They’ve gone on to develop their own style together, specifically the use of the bleech bypass lab technique, handheld camera, and the 45 degree shutter. These techniques were essentially born into mainstream consciousness with “Saving Private Ryan”. Today these tools are readily used by filmmakers to create the effect of “gritty”, and “tough”. It’s also become the mandatory look of war films today.
War of the Worlds (2005)
The Terminal (2004)
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Minority Report (2002)
AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Schindler's List (1993)
Gritty battle from SPR:
Vittorio Storaro – Bernardo Bertolucci/Warren Beatty/Coppola
Storaro is arguably the master of colour. He first worked with Bertolucci on the classic “The Conformist”. Storaro loves to use blue, red and yellow to help express mood and emotion from the characters and scenes. The most startling evidence is Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” in which entire sections of the film had themed colours corresponding to the stages of life of Emperor Pu Yi. Warren Beatty became a frequent collaborator after “Reds”, which won both Storaro and Beatty Oscars. Watch “Dick Tracy” though and you’ll see the most extreme example of Storaro’s use of colour. The entire film is bathed in primary colours. Storaro also shot 3 films with Coppola including "Apocalypse Now", "One From the Heart" and "Tucker, A Man and His Dream".
With Bernardo Bertolucci:
Little Buddha (1993)
The Sheltering Sky (1990)
The Last Emperor (1987)
La Luna (1979)
Last Tango in Paris (1973)
Spider’s Strategem (1970)
The Conformist (1970)
With Warren Beatty:
Dick Tracy (1990)
With Francis Coppola:
Tucker: A Man and his Dream (1988)
One From The Heart (1982)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Watch the colours in "Bulworth":
Roger Deakins – Joel & Ethan Coen
The Coen Bros first established a relationship with DOP Barry Sonenfeld who shot their first three films. Once directorial offers came to Barry, the Coens had to find another person to take his place. Roger Deakins stepped up to the plate for 1991’s “Barton Fink” and the rest is history. Roger Deakins is now a revered master who gets calls from Ron Howard, Sam Mendes and Norman Jewison. One of the most significant contributions of their collaboration is the use of DI (digital intermediate) instead of the traditional process of negative cutting. “O Brother Where Art Thou” was one of the first high profile films to use DI and its colour correction tools to manipulate the image in ways never before imagined. Deakins was able to turn “O Brother” from the traditionally unfiltered shot film into the dustbowl-era sepia toned look entirely in post-production. He did the same by turning colour film into beautiful B&W in “The Man Who Wasn’t There”.
No Country For Old Men (2007)
The Ladykillers (2004)
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Barton Fink (1991)
This is some colour manipulation "O Brother Where Art Thou?"
Robby Muller/Anthony Dot Mantle – Lars Von Trier
I’ve included these two cinematographers who work separately but are both responsible for Lars Von Trier’s most influential works. The Dogme ’95 films have had such a profound effect on filmmaking and much of it owed to these two great cinematographers. Robby Muller was already a successful collaborator (ie. Jim Jarmusch’s films), but his work on “Breaking the Waves” changed filmmaking forever. Under the direction of von Trier Muller broke ground with an up close and personal handheld style audiences had never seen before. Dot Mantle shot the Thomas Vinterberg's landmark Dogme film “The Celebration” in 1998. Mantle would help pioneer other classic video dogma features as Danny Boyle's “28 Days Later”, and von Trier's “Dogville”.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Breaking the Waves (1995)
Anthony Dot Mantle:
This is a German dubbed clip from "Breaking the Waves", but who cares:
Gregg Toland – John Ford
Gregg Toland’s legacy film is, no doubt, “Citizen Kane”. But he only made that one film with Orson Welles. It was his work with John Ford that laid the groundwork for “Kane”. Even though Toland was a studio guy who got ‘assigned’ to films he was able to test his ‘deep focus’ style in “The Long Voyage Home”, and “Grapes of Wrath.” It’s interesting to note, before Kane was universally accepted as the greatest Hollywood film ever made, routinely “The Grapes of Wrath” was cited as such. Toland also worked a lot with Howard Hawks and William Wyler, but, other than Welles, it’s his pioneering work with Ford that he is revered for.
The Long Voyage Home (1940)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Some deep focus from "Grapes of Wrath":
Gordon Willis – Woody Allen
Gordon Willis is most famous for shooting “The Godfather Saga.” But those are the only films he did with Coppola. Willis isn’t just about ‘underlighting’. His work in adapting a film’s look to the mood and tone of the material is his greatest strength. This is exemplified by his body of work with Woody Allen. His widescreen B&W work on Allen’s love poem to New York “Manhattan” complements perfectly the architect and history of the great city. And his work on the mockumentary “Zelig” was a seamless manipulation of stock footage and hand scratched shot footage to create fake but utterly believable newsreels from the 1920’s.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)
Stardust Memories (1980)
Annie Hall (1977)
A great scene from "Annie Hall":
Sven Nykvist – Ingmar Bergman
Nykvist and Bergman made 15 films together started with “Virgin Spring” in 1960 and ending with “Fanny and Alexander” in 1982. Their work resulted in a naturalistic style using almost exclusively on location sets, natural light, direct and simple shot compositions. Nykvist’s soft light style of the 70’s gave his films a dreamlike quality to them. This style became the rage in the late 70’s when filmmakers frequently used pro-mist filters to recreate the softness and haze of the Bergman/Nykvist films.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
From the Life of the Marionettes (1980)
Autumn Sonata (1978)
The Serpent's Egg (1977)
The Magic Flute (1975)
Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
Cries and Whispers (1973)
The Touch (1971)
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Winter Light (1963)
The Silence (1963)
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Minor spoilers in this "Cries and Whispers" clip:
Lucien Ballard – Sam Peckinpah
Lucien Ballard’s work with Sam Peckinpah deserves to be recognized. Ballard was not a master of light and colour, nor was he a technical genius like, say, Roger Deakins. Ballard lensed Peckinpah’s best known films – “Ride the High Country”, “The Wild Bunch”, and “The Getaway”. These films are not pretty to look at but captured the blood and guts dirtiness of Peckinpah’s films. The slo-mo blood ballet scenes in “The Wild Bunch” and “The Getaway” were so far ahead of its time in the late 60’s, early 70’s that, other than “Bonnie and Clyde” no one was doing that style until Ballard and Peckinpah did it. Today their influence is felt all over action films of the 80’s through to today – Walter Hill, John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez all have a piece of Lucien Ballard in them.
The Getaway (1973)
Junior Bonner (1972)
Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Ride the High Country (1963)
Some bloody gun battles in "Wild Bunch":
Kazuo Miyagawa - Kenji Mizoguchi
Miyagawa worked with the four great Japanese directors of the 50’s and 60’s including, Kurosawa, Ichikawa and Ozu. But he was most frequently associated with Kenji Mizoguchi and lensed such classics as “Sansho the Baliff”, “Ugetsu” and “The Crucified Woman”. Don’t forget that “Rashomon”, “Floating Weeds” and the “Zatoichi” films are also on his reel. Amazing.
Street of Shame (1956)
The Taira Clan (1955)
Crucified Lovers (1954)
Sansho the Baliff (1954)
The Crucified Woman (1954)
A Geisha (1953)
Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
Miss Oyu (1951)
This is “Ugetsu” (potential spoilers):
Sergei Urusevsky – Mikhael Kalatozov
Anyone who knows me knows I continually praise the underappreciated work of Mikhael Kalatozov. His man behind the camera was the great Sergei Urusevsky. Between the two filmmakers they created a series of films known for their innovative and proficient use of the mobile camera. Urusevsky could move his camera virtually anywhere he wanted. Using starkly contrasting B&W and extremely wide lenses, the world of his films were opened up to see everything in the frame. His extremely long takes of “I am Cuba”, “The Cranes Are Flying” and “The Letter That Wasn’t Sent” saw the camera move up and down buildings, into swimming pools, across long stretches of road, up staircases etc. He is a master and I can’t hype him enough.
I am Cuba (1964)
The Letter That Wasn’t Sent (1959)
The Cranes Are Flying (1958)
"I am Cuba":
Michael Chapman/Michael Ballhaus-Martin Scorsese
Marty has had a few great collaborators. The most significant have been Michael Chapman, who shot “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” and Michael Ballhaus who shot “After Hours”, “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” and more. Neither of the Michaels exhibit a trademark style or look. Each of them adapted to the look Marty specifically wanted. “Raging Bull” is the flashiest of these films. It’s a technical masterpiece filled with so many memorable shots you can’t keep track. Robert Richardson lensed three Scorsese pictures as well and in those films his signature look showed through beyond the Scorsese style. But the greatness of each of Michael’s films means as much as any other film listed here.
The Departed (2006)
Gangs of New York (2002)
The Age of Innocence (1993)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The Color of Money (1986)
After Hours (1985)
Raging Bull (1980)
Taxi Driver (1976)
One of the beautifully composed shots of all time:
Robert Burks – Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock worked many different cinematographers. But at the height of his career Robert Burks was his go-to guy. Burks first worked with Hitch on “Strangers on a Train”, but it was his colour films that made their work memorable, to name a few “Dial M For Murder”, “Rear Window”, "North By Northwest” and “Vertigo”. Hitchcock’s use of colour in "Vertigo" is their greatest legacy. With colour still in its infancy, Burks and Hitchcock used its hallucinatory qualities to its maximum. Colour became a character in the film. For example, Burks used green to represent Jimmy Stewart’s character’s vertigo and how its effect translated into his burgeoning relationship with Kim Novak’s character.
The Birds (1963)
North By Northwest (1959)
The Wong Man (1956)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
The Trouble With Harry (1955)
To Catch a Thief (1955)
Rear Window (1954)
Dial M For Murder (1954)
I Confess (1953)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Grace Kelly’s entrance in “Rear Window”:
John Alcott – Stanley Kubrick
From 1971 to 1980 John Alcott was Kubrick’s go-to guy. Alcott actually started out doing additional photography on “2001: A Space Odyssey” though Geoffrey Unsworth got the credit. His first film in charge of the camera was “A Clockwork Orange.” Though not as impressive technically as “2001” it was the first of Kubrick’s new look which he would stick to for the remainder of his career (except “Eyes Wide Shut”). Alcott used natural light as much as possible, creating a largely flat look. Alcott would win an Academy Award for his use of candle-light cinematography in 1975’s “Barry Lyndon”. “The Shining” carried the same look as “Clockwork”, and though Alcott didn’t shoot “Full Metal Jacket” his influence is still on that film as well.
The Shining (1980)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – additional photography
Alcott's candle-lit interiors:
Raoul Coutard – Jean-Luc Godard/Francois Traffaut
It wouldn’t be a list without acknowledging the New Wave cine-master Raoul Coutard who shot the majority of the great Jean-Luc Godard’s films and several of Francois Truffaut’s. The French New Wave is famous for its on-location locales, minimalist lighting and handheld camera work. Apparently before 1958 he had never handled a motion picture camera. He was a stills photographer who stumbled into shooting film. His first New Wave film was the seminal “Breathless”. Even Coutard would admit his work is unpolished and a little sloppy but it typifies the inventiveness and free form spirit of the New Wave.
Prénom Carmen (1983)
Week End (1967)
La Chinoise (1967)
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967)
Made in U.S.A. (1966)
Pierrot le fou (1965)
A Married Woman (1964)
Band of Outsiders (1964)
Les Carabiniers (1963)
The Little Soldier (1963)
My Life to Live 1962)
A Woman is a Woman (1961)
Watch Karina shake it in “Vivre Sa Vie” (remind you of another famous movie from 1994?):
Gregg Toland - Orson Welles
Ok only one film, but it's "Citizen Kane". Respect.
The New Guard
Here’s a sampling of how this list could be added to in the next ten years
Emmanuel Lubezki – Alfonso Cuaron
Children of Men (2006)
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Great Expectations (1998)
A Little Princess (1995)
Sólo Con Tu Pareja (1991)
Cuaron and Lubezki’s language together includes wideangle lenses and long takes. After “Children of Men” both filmmakers are household names and hot commodities in Hollywood. Lubezki’s already been courted by the likes of Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, and Tim Burton. There’s no doubt this team will be expanding the limits of cinema for years to come.
Harris Savides - Gus Van Zant
The Last Days (2004)
This is the death trilogy which exclusivey used long takes, and in the case of "Elephant", elaborate steadycam shots. Each of these films are immaculately composed and choreographed. Hopefully Van Zant will hired Savides beyond the death trilogy, though for Van Zant's next film, "Paranoid Park", he employed another great DOP, Christopher Doyle.
Robert Elswit – Paul Thomas Anderson
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Boogie Nights (1997)
Anderson’s language includes brilliant steadycam work, long tracking shots, anamorphic flared lenses and brilliant hues of blue and red. “There Will Be Blood” is due out before the end of the year. We will to see if its fits in with their three other films.
Wally Pfister – Christopher Nolan
Four films with completely different looks and visual design. A Pfister film or a Nolan film is not noticeable by look, but the masterful collaboration so far makes these two in the top five of working filmmaker teams today.
The Prestige (2006)
Batman Begins (2005)
Rodrigo Prieto - Alejandro González Iñárritu
21 Grams (2003)
Amores Perros (2000)
Prieto and Inarritu love their grainy, handheld over the shoulder shots. These are the hallmarks of their collaboration. Prieto is big time now after working with Ang Lee, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee. I hope they continue to mutually express themselves together in future collaborations.
Matthew Libatique - Darren Aronofsky
The Fountain (2006)
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
After only a few films with the director Matthew Libatique and Darren Aronofsky are already revered in cinematographers circles for their innovative and expressive camera. “The Fountain” was a departure by shooting the film entirely in a studio and much of it green screen. But Aronofsky kept it real by refusing to use CG and opting for traditional practical and optical effects which kept Libatique on set and in control of the look of the film.
Robert Yeoman - Wes Anderson
Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Bottle Rocket (1996)
Yeoman and Anderson’s films are so distinct, one frame of one of their films is immediately distinguishable as their own. They love their wideangle, anamorphic frames, extremely overcranked slo-mo and lush saturated colours. Look for “The Darjeeling Limited” hopefully later this year.