Saturday, September 14, 2013

Flick of the Day: Jurassic Park

When I was 7 years old, in the summer of 1993, I was brought to the cinema to see a new film. Unlike today, I knew absolutely nothing about what I was about to see. As one gets older, very few things surprise you on the silver screen. You become overpowered with the amount of previews and reviews and blogs and advertising spots to such an extent that you are never surprised by what you see in the cinema and very often have built up your own expectations to such an extent that the film can never live up to it. What made that film I saw in the Forum Cinema in Glasthule so exciting was that I had no expectations, I hadn't read the book or seen the trailer. That kind of experience is something that sadly I cannot relive again and am unlikely to experience again. However, what I can do is re-watch that film and experience the excitement once more of entering Jurassic Park.
On a stormy night in some remote jungle location, a team of workers and security personnel are delivering some unseen creature to its new enclosure. A terrifying accident occurs and a worker is killed. John Hammond, played by the elder statesman Richard Attenborough,  the visionary showman and founder of InGen is forced to bring in outside advisers for his new theme park. This is a park unlike any that have come before. This is a park filled with animals that have not existed on Earth for 65 million years. Hammond invites the gruff but brilliant palaeontologist Dr. Alan Grant, played by the always excellent Sam Neill, and  palaeobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler, played by Laura Dern. Along for the weekend are Jeff Goldblum's oddball mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm, an oily lawyer named Gennaro and Hammond's grandchildren Lex and Tim. The grand scale of Hammond's vision soon becomes apparent and how through the wonder of scientific hokum they have managed to recreate living, breathing dinosaurs on a tropical island off the coast of Costa Rica, Isla Nublar. Were this just a trip to the zoo, albeit a quite magical and dangerous zoo, it would not be half as entertaining as it is. The arrival of a tropical storm, as they are wont to do on tropical islands, combined with sundry errors on the part of Hammond's team of wizard like geneticists leads to the inevitable outbreak of chaos. What follows is a hugely entertaining game of survival as the visitors to park seek to escape with their lives.
Given how much cinema has become overrun with their usage, it is easy to forget how much of a novelty the CGI effects used in Jurassic Park were upon its release 20 years ago. It was only true judicious use of this ground-breaking technology combined with life-sized animatronics that Steven Spielberg was able to deliver on the vision of Crichton's best-selling science fiction adventure. Looking back now, the CGI hasn't dated horribly and still looks impressive while Stan Winston's animatronic creations help give the various dinosaurs character as they run amok. The scene involving the raptors on the loose in the kitchen is still as thrilling as it always was.
Given the visual hoopla on display, it would be easy to fall into the trap so many disaster movies fall into of casting shall we say sub-par performers in the leading roles. I am thinking here of some of the cast of bridge trolls that populate the god-awful 1974 Charlton Heston starring Earthquake (Tagline "When The Big One Finally Hits L.A."). Spielberg thankfully fills the cast with some fine actors. Sam Neill, perhaps the finest antipodean talent of a very talented generation of actors, is superb as the rock around which the cast is built. Laura Dern has since gone on to develop a fine career as character actor and Dicky Attenborough brings gravitas as he always did. There is even an arm-tingling performance from Samuel L. Jackson and a deliciously slimy turn from Wayne Knight as the duplicitous Dennis Nedry. Jeff Goldbum remains one of my favourite actors to this day and he has great fun playing the wacky Malcolm.
The summer blockbuster has changed immeasurably in many ways since Spielberg invented the genre with Jaws in 1975 and in many ways for the worse. Gone are the days when films need to be based off anything as substantial as a best-selling book. I think the nadir has to be basing a film on a theme park ride but who am I to judge? In any case, Jurassic Park still stands out today for its technical prowess and lashings of adventure. Why not watch it once more, luxuriate in the excitement of your youth? I know I will.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Flick of The Day: Children of Men

I've often thought it funny or at least remarkable that the cinematic vision of the future encountered in so many science fiction films is a dystopian one. Think of the vast cityscape of Blade Runner or the dark streets of Tokyo in Akira or the decaying hedonism of Rian Johnson's recent film Looper, all visions of the future that are a touch nightmarish. It is a rare enough thing to see a film set in the future where everything is better than it is now, perhaps indicative of the natural cynicism of film-makers or indeed of the world we currently live in and the direction of the human race. Suffice as to say today's flick of the day is just as dystopian but in the hands of Alfonso Cuaron becomes so much more than that.
It is the year 2027 and there have been no new human births for 18 years. The human race's hegemony over planet earth is in its final days and the world has descended into chaos. Great Britain remains as a last stalwart against the tide but has become a hellish police state where all immigrants are herded into camps. Clive Owen is Theo, a cynical civil servant and cog in the wheels of the state. Once upon a time he was an activist but has become embittered since the death of his son. He spends his days drinking too much and gambling as a means of passing the time. He visits his ageing hippy friend Jasper, played by an excellent Michael Caine, as a means of getting away from things. He is approached by his former wife Julian, played by Julianne Moore, who has become a member of terrorist group called the Fishes that seek to liberate immigrants with an offer. In return for cash, he agrees to help them transport a young girl to the coast so that she can be picked up by the Human Project, a near mythical scientific group based in the Azores. Of course, all is not as it seems and the young girl holds a secret with the potential to bring redemption to the whole human race. A secret that men will kill for and which Theo will have to risk his life to protect.
There are few bleaker visions of the earth's future than Cuaron's dark stylised take on PD James 1992 book. London is a city filled with despair for the masses but with tiny enclaves of great wealth. In one particularly well executed scene, Theo views the squalor of the city from the safe confines of a Rolls Royce before arriving at the walled splendour of St James Park all set to the tune of King Crimson. This is a London where terrorist bombings are a part of daily life and life itself has become a grim march to the death reminiscent of Orwell's 1984.
The visuals are often stunning and yet unlike so many films set in the future, it doesn't attempt to overreach in terms of the available technology. The cars and computers are slightly better but combined with the grime and dust which covers everything it leaves you with the feeling that man has given up on technology as he enters his final days.
This dark vision could become too much to bear for an audience and the film could become something of trek but yet such is the epic scale of Cuaron's vision that it is never too much. There is enough heart and hope for the redemption of man to carry the film to its thrilling end. It makes for at times affecting viewing and combined with a superb soundtrack that moves seamlessly across genres and decades to pulls at the heartstrings. It is never less than compelling viewing and there are some fine performances even apart from the leads. The great Peter Mullan steals every scene he is in as the deranged immigration officer Syd and Chiwetel Ejiofor excels as the dark hearted ideologue of the Fishes. 
A thought provoking and absorbing tale with a wafer thin premise at the heart of it that remains just believable enough to carry the film. It is an epic journey and perhaps one of the best films of the naughties, if you haven't seen it yet than I urge you to do so.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini 1961-2013

“In life, it’s not men that count, it’s the man.”

It is with sadness this morning that I awoke to news of the death of James Gandolfini at the age of 51 of a suspected heart attack while holidaying in Rome with his son. It is far too young an age to bid farewell to anyone but particularly for somebody who brought such talent into the world and through the entertainment he provided made the everyday lives of millions around the world just that little sweeter. He was a peerless talent and one who’s passing will long be lamented.
Mr Gandolfini was born into a working class New Jersey family in 1961. His father was an Itailian immigrant who had a number of jobs including bricklayer and stone mason while his mother was a cafeteria chef.  He was not somebody born to be an actor and indeed worked as bartender and a nightclub manager before he was introduced to acting at the age of 25 by a friend who took him to an acting class. His talent and hard work was such that he soon began to build a career as a character actor making his Broadway d├ębut in a 1992 revival of Tennessee Williams classic A Street Car Named Desire.

Like so many men of his stature and ethnicity, it was as playing Italian-American tough guys that Gandolfini first found fame. He brought a brutal charm to the role of Virgil, a Mafia hit man in Tony Scott’s 1993 film True Romance, based on a script by Quentin Tarantino. From there he built a steady career as a character actor playing in small roles in big Hollywood pictures like Crimson Tide, Get Shorty and Night Falls on Manhattan. He was however still largely an unknown when in 1999 David Chase cast him to star in his new HBO Mafia-themed family drama The Sopranos as Tony Soprano.  He said of the role in 2001:

I thought it was a wonderful script…But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair, shall we say, a little more appealing to the eye.

It was a role that made him famous across the globe and offered him the chance to bring his great acting talent to bear on a character worthy of it.  To me, what made his performance so compelling was that he made Tony endearing even lovable at times but yet never compromised on the fact that he was a hard man, a gangster who could be brutally violent and display little remorse afterward. The Sopranos went on to change how people viewed television, pushing the limits of what was thought possible.  By all accounts Gandolfini was a lovely man in person but yet he seemed to inhabit the role of Tony completely on the screen. If you have yet to see it, take the time. Across six series The Sopranos brings the viewer on a journey through an epic saga of family, loyalty and the corruptive power of crime.

For James Gandolfini, The Sopranos brought him fame, wealth but above all recognition of his talent. For me his performance will remain as one of the best I’ve ever seen for many years to come. It was not however the limit of his talents. In the years since that final cut to black brought an end to the series and perhaps Tony Soprano himself, he has taken on a wide variety of roles to great acclaim. He was a profane and irritable armchair General in the British satire In the Loop and the voice of Carol in the big screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. He played a damaged and grieving man opposite Kristen Stewart in the much underappreciated Welcome to the Rileys.

He was nominated for a Tony award for his performance as an angry parent in the Broadway drama God of Carnage opposite Jeff Daniels who said this morning:

If Broadway has a version of a guy you want in your foxhole, Jim Gandolfini was mine. During our time together in 'God of Carnage,' we played 320 performances together. He didn't miss one. Sadly, I now miss him like a brother.”

Last year he delivered an entertaining turns as the CIA Director in Katherine Bigelow’s account of the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. It was a different type of role and hinted at the imposing gravitas he now brought to his performances as he aged. He continued to work with HBO, producing a number of documentaries for the channel including Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq and was next to be seen on a new drama series called Criminal Justice.
He is survived by his wife and two children. I leave the final words to Sopranos creator David Chase and I include my favourite scene from the show below.

He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. He was my partner… He was my brother in ways I can't explain and never will be able to explain."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Flick of the Day: The Iceman

I like surprises. I especially like surprises when I go to the cinema. I like entering the theatre with little or no expectations and being pleasantly surprised by the two hour traffic of my stage. Of course such things are relatively rare in this age of endless interconnectivity and near constant reviews of everything that a human being can consume. Generally you know what to expect. Today was a nice exception.  
Michael Shannon has developed a career out of playing intense and often brooding characters to great effect. He was the crazed young man who is perhaps the only truly sane character in Revolutionary Road, he was the family man driven over the edge by his nightmares in Take Shelter and the crooked cop having a bad day in Premium Rush. Such is his talent that with the right roles he will surely become a star. Today he plays Richard Kuklinski, a real life Mafia hit-man who built a career on a pathological coldness yet maintained a relatively happy family life until his arrest in 1986.
Our tale opens in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1965, Richard is a quiet and brooding young man attempting to woo Deborah played by Winona Ryder. The pair fall in love and marry though Deborah remains unaware that Richard works as a pornography distributor on the fringes of the underworld.  He soon displays a propensity for great violence at the least provocation and comes to the attention of local boss Roy Demeo played with a vicious charm by Ray Liotta. Richard becomes a man who removes the little problems that Roy encounters. The years pass and the body count rises and meanwhile Richard and Deborah have  had two daughters who seem to worship the ground on which their father walks. Business has been good to Richard and he has become a wealthy man. He explains his largesse to his unsuspecting friends as being down to his skill as a foreign currency trader. Things are almost too good and so it proves as the actions of Roy's deadbeat friend Josh Rosenthal, played by an incredibly sleazy David Schwimmer, conspire to drive a wedge between Roy and Richard. Richard's life begins to spiral out of control and as his well appointed facade falls apart so does his grip on his psychosis.
What separates today's flick and indeed Michael Shannon's performance is that unlike so many films it does not in any way seek to glamorise the lives of what are deeply disturbed men. They do not live normal lives like the rest of us, they live violently. It is the violence and the underlying psychosis which anchor their lives. Richard Kuklinski is a very scary individual, always on the edge of violence. Yet so is Ray Liotta's Roy Demeo and Richard's fellow contract killer Mr. Freezy played by Chris Evans. They are men who hurt small animals, men who engage in domestic violence. They are in short, not to be admired or normalised in the manner so many gangsters are in hagiography-like biopics. 
The film is blessed to have a really excellent supporting cast with fine turns from the likes of Robert Davi as a Mafia boss, John Ventimiglia who is perhaps better known as Artie Bucco in The Sopranos and a blink and you will miss it turn from James Franco. All in all this is a very compelling look at a man consumed by violence. It manages to both detail his crimes and his love for his family which I don't doubt was genuine. Some of the most interesting scenes involve the interplay between Richard and his unassuming family. Shannon's performance makes you feel like anything could happen. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Flick of The Day: The Shawshank Redemption

In August 1982, Stephen King released his new book. It was something of a portmanteau novel combining four separate novellas under the title Different Seasons, linking each with reference to the changing seasons.  One of the novellas was a little fable called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”. So was born a tale of hope and its redemptive power. In 1987, an aspiring young film-maker and screenwriter named Frank Darabont optioned the rights to make the story into a feature film for the princely sum of $1. He had impressed the novelist with a previous adaptation and the pair had maintained a pen pal relationship over the years.  This was to say the least something of a coup for Darabont. The director Rob Reiner has been desperate to acquire the rights to Shawshank having offered $2.5m in the hope of writing and directing his own adaptation to have starred Tom Cruise as the main protagonist Andy Dufresne and Harrison Ford as his friend Red. However Darabont had his own vision for the film and saw it as his opportunity to make something special. Thankfully for all of us, he got to realise his vision.

In Portland, Maine in 1947, a wealthy young banker named Andy Dufresne, played with a Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz like charm by Tim Robbins, is accused of murdering his adulterous wife. She had left him for a local golf pro and the pair of lovers had been found murdered the next morning. Andy protests his innocence; he went to the house on the night in question and sat in his car drinking with a loaded weapon which he later claims to have thrown in the river.  He is found guilty and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences to be served at Shawshank State Penitentiary. We soon learn that Shawshank is a violent and brutal place overseen by the corrupt religious ideologue Warden Norton, a fantastic career best performance from Bob Gunton, and the thoroughly evil Captain Byron Hadley, played by Clancy Brown. Andy’s quiet and aloof manner is taken by his fellow prisoners as an indication that he sees himself as a cut above. It is not until a couple of months of passed that he speaks a word to anyone.  The man he chooses is Red, a prisoner who knows how to get things. Whatever you require, Red will provide. Morgan Freeman delivers perhaps his greatest performance as Red imbuing the character with wit and charm while retaining a hard edged outlook on prison life borne of his own life sentence.  Andy asks Red to procure a rock hammer; he was a collector of rocks in his former life and wishes to do so again. He later asks Red to procure him a poster of Rita Hayworth. As the year pass by, the pair develop a friendship, something to hold onto against the bleak landscape of the prison. Andy is targeted by a gang of rapists, the Sisters, led by the malevolent Boggs. He is repeatedly attacked, sometimes fighting them off, sometimes not. 

Eventually Andy manages to find himself useful in aiding the corruption at the heart of Shawshank and in particular Warden Norton. Years pass and we find ourselves moving through the 1950s and 60s. Andy is put in charge of the prison library and freed once and for all from the attentions of the Sisters. Throughout the decades of drudgery and setbacks, Andy maintains the hope of eventual freedom. Red on the other hand comes to accept that he may never leave the prison. As we reach a thrilling and life affirming ending, we are left in n doubt that hope can overcome all and bring redemption to those who have long given up on it.

I am determined to keep as much of the plot under wraps as I can for those unlikely few who have yet to see the film as it is such a joy to behold. Andy overcomes so much and yet maintains a lifelong friendship with Red. It would destroy lesser men and indeed the film certainly hints that Andy has taken all that he can take.
There are too many superlatives which could be applied to the film so I will only offer up a few small thoughts. The nuance and exactitude of Darabont’s storytelling is something to behold. There are no moments of fat on the script, it is tight, well thought out and leads to the finest of denouement. In terms of performances, the film is replete with some really fine turns. Tim Robbins perfectly captures a vulnerable and quiet man who is thrust into hell but hopes to retain his human dignity. He seeks only peace where others might need revenge. Morgan Freeman is equally adept as Red or Ellis Redding to give him his full name. He manages to bring a sense of loss to the character. A man who knows that but for one stupid mistake as a young man he could have lived his life. It is this sense of loss which drives him to survive and not rely on superfluous (in his mind) things like hope.

Of course every hero needs an enemy and in Bob Gunton’s Warden Norton, Andy has one for the ages.  From the first moment we meet him, he is a steely eyed zealot determined to enforce absolute rule on the prisoners. Much like Jesuit missionaries or the crusaders of old, he cannot be reasoned with and has a quote from the scriptures to justify all eventualities. Yet he is a deeply immoral man, through the use of Andy’s skills he creates a vast network of corruption with ill-gotten money flowing toward him.
Ultimately the central theme of the film is justice or the lack thereof. Andy may find redemption but he never gets justice. Neither his wife nor her lover could be said to have received it either, their true murderer remaining unaccounted for.  Warden Norton uses his own method to avoid the long reach of justice. I suppose the heart of the film is that you can’t rely on outside forces to deliver you safely; it is only true personal determination that we can hope to survive.

Having watched the film again for the purposes of this, it is strange to think that it was a commercial failure on its initial release, earning a grand total of $16m before it left cinemas.  It was however well received by critics and went on to garner seven nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was only when it reached the home video market that it truly began to be seen by cineastes as the triumph it is. In the years since, the legend has grown to the stage where it is now Number 1 on the IMDB 250 and appears unlikely to be toppled any time soon. It has become something of a Western cultural touch stone which everyone sees at some point. For that alone, I think Stephen King got his $1 worth.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Flick of The Day: Rounders

To me, defining a film as a “cult movie” can very often be a kiss of death. It implies a kind of blind faith in the film’s qualities on behalf of its followers. Very often this means that a small minority of people have decided to champion the work of a director who just isn't very good. If the film were the gem they claimed it to be, more people would like it. This is not always the case. There are those rare times when a brilliant film is overlooked due poor marketing or a studio releasing it for a week in only one cinema. It happens. It is often forgotten that The Shawshank Redemption was a commercial failure on its release and it was only when it was rediscovered and eventually championed on home video that it took on the mantle of modern classic which it bears today. Perhaps the original “cult” movie is Withnail and I, a film beloved by a generation of students since its release. Then again, perhaps now the film is less of “cult” and more of a cultural touch point because it has become recognised for the very fine film it is. I suppose what I am driving at is that a film tends to retain this mythic “cult” film status until its merits are recognised and the chances are that it this never happens, the film probably isn't worth your devotion. Today’s flick of the day is a film that has thrown of its “cult” status and rightly so for it is a very enjoyable couple of hours indeed, Rounders.

In the lexicon of professional poker, a rounder is a player who tours the country looking for gambling action, a man who lives and dies by the fall of the cards.  Legends of the game like Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim could be described thus and it was not a respectable career to have at the time. It is only really in the last two decades as the internet poker boom made it more socially acceptable to be a professional player that it has gained a modicum of respectability. Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon, is a young man who wants to play the game at that kind of level. As the film begins, he is using his poker prowess to finance his way through law school in New York however he dreams of bigger things. In an attempt to build a bank roll he can take to Las Vegas he finds himself outplayed by a connected Russian Mafioso, Teddy KGB, played with wild abandon by John Malkovich.  It is a crushing defeat not least because he now finds himself broke and driving a delivery truck for friend Knish, in a fine turn from John Turturro as a wise old poker head. He promises his girlfriend he will gamble no more and as the months pass he keeps this promise. However when his old friend Worm is release from prison, played by the always excellent Ed Norton, he returns to his previous ways largely in part to Worm’s goading and pleading. Worm is like a bad penny and despite paying lip service to Mike’s attempts to change him, eventually runs up a large debt on Mike’s tab to local hoodlum Grama. When a long shot attempt to play their way out of trouble is fatally undermined by Worm’s cheating play, Mike is left with few options. This is made worse by the discovery that Grama is backed up by Teddy KGB. Ultimately Mike is left with no option but to attempt to play his way out of a debt that Worm landed him with.

There are few elements of gambling more replete with thrilling moments of drama than the turn of the final or river card in a game of Texas Hold’Em poker. The most enjoyable moments of the film are when Mike is throwing it all on the turn of a card. The film-maker successfully wrings every moment of tension out of it by allowing us to see the cards that Mike holds. Audiences love to see an underdog win, to beat overwhelming odds and come out on top. It is at the heart of the continued success of films like Rocky and its sequels. Mike is such an underdog because we have seen him lose it all before and know that he is only back here because a supposed friend has mistreated him. It makes the denouement all the more delicious.

In a young Matt Damon, the film has the perfect blend of sensitivity and charm to carry the role and it is of course no surprise that he went on the be the star he has subsequent to this film’s release in 1998.  Of course it helps that film is top loaded with excellent character actors like Ed Norton, John Malkovich and John Turturro. This is without even mentioning a crucial turn from Martin Landau.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable film which any poker player can’t help but identify with and indeed it has been credited in some quarters with helping to foment the massive increase in poker playing across the globe over the last decade.

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