Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Flick of The Day: Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans

Abel Ferrara's 1992 original take on the Bad Lieutenant was a controversial and flawed tale of a drugged out, corrupt and abusive cop brilliantly played by Harvey Keitel. A dark and disturbing film, it is a tale of redemption but remains unremittingly bleak. This film, which according to director Werner Herzog is neither a remake or a sequel, shares very little with the original. It is a drug fuelled epic journey through the back-streets and bayous of Louisiana as a darkly comic Nicholas Cage, the bad lieutenant of the title tries to solve the drug related homicide of a family of African immigrants.
Where Keitel's Lieutenant was menacing, Cage is more prosaic. Both are corrupt and deeply flawed characters but Cage's portrayal is the more sympathetic. The story is a simple one. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Terrence McDonagh (Cage) of the New Orleans PD finds a prisoner has been left behind in one of the City's jails and in attempt to rescue him injures his back permanently. Fast forward 6 months and a painkiller addicted McDonagh is investigating the aforementioned homicide. Of course, the painkillers are no longer enough and Terrence begins using Cocaine and Heroin to ease his pain. An increasingly addled and addicted Mcdonagh must try and solve the murders while staying one step ahead of his gambling debts, the Mafia, his fellow cops, his various addictions and his troubled prostitute girlfriend played by the wonderful Eva Mendes. 

So far so bleak but the brilliance of this is the dark humour which Herzog finds in all of this, which keeps this a roller coaster ride. Cage is epic, giving his best performance in at least a decade as the degenerate cop who ultimately pulls everything together while swaggering across the screen with a .44 Magnum in his belt. Epic film-making.
One of my favourite films of the last year, this is an excellent and adult look at addiction and how it can change people. Ultimately, McDonagh never overcomes his addiction but seems to succeed in spit of it. 

Any review of this film would not be complete without a comparison to the original. This is a very different beast. Abel Ferrara and Werner Herzog are as different as it is possible for directors to be. Ferrara specialises in dark thrashy cult tales of the underbelly of his home town, New York City. Herzog is the darling of independent cinema, the man who Francois Truffaut called, "the most important film director alive". While they are both excellent explorations of the same themes, Herzog's is the more watchable and enjoyable as it keeps its mind on the plot and characters and as far out as Cage gets, he pulls it back in the end. Give it a chance, its worth it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Flick of The Day: Home Alone

Oh well, back again for one more pre-Christmas movie. John Hughes was one of the true greats of modern comedy writing providing scripts for some of the funniest and best loved films of the 1980s and 1990s including Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and todays film; Home Alone.
It is easy to write this film off as another mass market family comedy, as it was such a mammoth hit which fathered two infinitely inferior sequels. That would be to overlook a very fine script and loathe though I am to admit it, a very likeable characterisation of the young Kevin McAllister by Macauley Culkin. If you are one of the very few who have yet to see this gem, the story is a very simple one: A young boy named Kevin is accidentally left behind when his family head to France for Christmas. When he realizes they've left him "home alone," he learns to become self sufficient and eventually defends the family home from a pair of bumbling thieves played with great comic timing by Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci.

For all its great comic moments, and there are some very fine set pieces such as the various traps Kevin lays for the witless burglars, this film lives and dies depending on the likeability of the young actor playing Kevin. Too cute and the film becomes saccharine, too mature and the film is unrealistic but Macaulay Culkin brought just the right amount of mischief to the rule to make it enjoyable. This is a great film and I urge you to check it out over the holiday period if you get a chance.

Still the most succesful live action comedy of all time, it is often forgotten how big a hit Home Alone was in 1990. This kind of commercial success should lead to all involved having secure careers for years to come however this was not the case. This was the height of Macaulay Culkin's fame, and perhaps because he simply grew up, he hasn't appeared in anything substantive since the late '90s.

John Hughes, perhaps overawed by his success took a step back from Hollywood, indeed he didn't a direct another film after 1991's so-so Curly Sue. He moved back to his home-town in Illinois, eventually becoming a farmer, rarely if ever granting interviews and largely retiring from the public eye. He was said to be deeply shaken by the death of his close friend John Candy from a heart attack and consequently never returned to Hollywood. Hughes died of a heart attack on August 6, 2009 while walking in Manhattan where he was visiting his family. He was 59 years old and largely forgotten by the Hollywood mainstream.

So, there it is. As I said if you get the chance, Home Alone is well worth your time as are all of the John Hughes canon. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Flick of The Day: It's a Wonderful Life

It is you know. What can be said about this film that hasn't been said already? This is the film that invented feel good cinema. Its directed by the masterful Frank Capra and stars the every-man James Stewart playing the every-man George Bailey.
A commercial failure upon its release in 1946, this was the film that marked the end of Frank Capra's long run as the director of choice for populist features. It was only after it became a staple of the Christmas TV schedule that this film came to be seen as the classic that it is to the surprise of all including its director who told the Wall Street Journal in 1984:

"It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen, the film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I'm like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I'm proud"

It is a classic tale of redemption. The film opens on Christmas Eve, George Bailey, a man whom we know nothing about is in trouble, on the brink of suicide. The voice in the sky sends a guardian angel to earth to save George and show him the value of his life, but before he can be dispatched to earth, he needs to know George. So unfolds the life story of George and how he came to his moment of doubt and pain upon a wintry Christmas Eve. 
James Stewart inhabits the role of George so completely, giving his downfall such pathos that you cannot but be moved by his tale. At all the key moments in George's life which we witness during the film, be it saving his brother from a frozen lake, or staying at home to run the family business after his fathers death, George does the right thing. He does the moral thing and selflessly gives up his own dreams and aspirations to do the right thing. A man who wanted to travel the world in the search for adventure, he spends his whole life in the same small town. You would be a hard person not to feel sympathy for him. It is something which we all struggle with, squaring the needs of friends and family with your own personal ambition, perhaps the most difficult of tasks.
Of course, being the good son or daughter, sometimes it doesn't lead you to where you want to be. It just leaves you unfulfilled. So it is that George finds himself on Christmas Eve on the brink of suicide before he is made to see the happiness he has brought to other people and the value of his life in the good he has done.
Most importantly, all of the people who he helped along the road of life are there for him at the end. Maybe that is the greatest gift of all.
Featuring a superb supporting cast including the incomparable Lionel Barrymore as the evil old Mr Potter, George Bailey's arch nemesis, this is one of the finest films of all time. Christmas just wouldn't be the same without it and the ending will put a smile on anyone's face and give you faith in your fellow man. It is often forgotten how dark it gets before the redemption. George bitterly wishing he wasn't born and then being granted that wish. The darkest hour is before the dawn though and the emotional pay-off is worth it.
It is a wonderful life...most of the time.

The Daily Flick will return in the New Year. Have a Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Flick of The Day: The Maltese Falcon

When it comes to film noir and detective fiction in general, there are no more influential writers then Raymond Chandler with his creation of Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett with his Sam Spade. Spade is the central focus of today's film, The Maltese Falcon. The novel was the source of two previous adaptations by Warner Bros before this, the definitive version with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.

Legendary director, John Huston was 35 years old when he wrote and directed this classic tale of greed and its consequences for his debut outing as a director. The film opens with the following introducion:

"In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels——but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day..."

The story is thus: Spade and his partner are hired by a mysterious woman to protect her from a man called Floyd Thursby. Before long, Spade's partner is dead and he is submerged into a web of deceit in the search for the titular falcon.

This was the role that made Humphrey Bogart a leading man, the next year he made Casablanca and was at the height of his profession and never looked back though he was not the first choice for the film. George Raft turned down the role because of an unwillingness to work with a first-time director. This proved a fatal mistake for Raft who's career went into terminal decline as the decade wore on, while Bogart became Hollywood royalty.
Bogart wasn't the only star though for this film had a truly stellar supporting cast with a fine performance from Sydney Greenstreet as the "Fat Man" and Peter Lorre playing his usual sinister foreigner. There is even a small appearance from the noted Western actor and John Ford alumnus, Ward Bond as a San Francisco detective.

One of the finest movies ever made and quite probably the best example of film noir at its best, The Maltese Falcon still weaves a tale today that is every bit as compelling as it was in 1941. One of the great achievements of this film is the superb cinematography from Arthur Edeson. The lighting is low key and the camera angles chosen are always strikingly unusual. The camera is often placed low to the ground, perhaps to reinforce the image of the characters being low down villains.

All in all, a film you just have to see.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Flick of The Day: Radio Days

There are certain film-makers who divide cineastes down the middle. Woody Allen would be such a Director. Whether for his style of humour or his unwavering commitment to a template for a Woody Allen film, cinema-goers either love him or hate him. Overall, I would be in the former camp, some of his work is undoubtedly among the pantheon of modern classics such as Manhattan, Annie Hall or today’s film, Radio Days. 

A nostalgic tribute to the New York of Woody Allen’s youth, it weaves together the events of the time as seen through the eyes of a young boy and his family, combined with stories and anecdotes from the golden age of the radio. When everyone had a radio and it was the form of home entertainment. 

The film is stuffed with a fine cast of character actors; you may recognise more faces then names in the cast list. Mia Farrow is excellent in a small comedic role. Just one of a number of humorous tales, though this is a gentle comedy with warm tale at heart which hurtles toward an obvious an inexorable conclusion that the glory days of radio are coming to an end. Don't mistake this for sentimentality though, there is some sharp observational comedy at times. The young boy, quite obviously based on Allen's own childhood, is played by a very very young Seth Green, he of the obnoxious gross out comedy. There also fine turns from William H Macy, Jeff Daniels and Larry David as the "neighbourhood communist".

This is Woody Allen’s finest film of the 1980’s and it is perhaps incidental that he doesn't star in the film. By this stage it has become quite the cliché to see a Woody Allen rom-com in which he pursues a much younger women and this is a refreshing change. Woody is there in the background though, acting as the narrator.

Overall, this is a very fine film which captures a bygone era with aplomb. Viewing it is like coming in from the cold and when the denouement arrives, on a rooftop on New Year’s Eve, you may not want to leave.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Flick of The Day: The Life & Death Of Peter Sellers

A studied portrait of a very unpleasant man. That could sum up any number of biographical pictures but it seems most apt for this, the life of the incomparable Peter Sellers. 

It is difficult to judge a man based on a film but whatever genius Sellers had as a performer, it was surely outweighed by how poorly he treated those in his life. Geoffrey Rush is magnificent in this role however, Sellers seems not to be a real adult at all, but a small child with no sense of his own personality, forever playing a character. Something which Sellers himself admits midway through. At various points in the film, Rush breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience as various characters from Sellers life such as his hen pecked Father. 

Emily Watson gives another dignified performance as Sellers first wife, whom he left in an attempt to woo Sophia Lauren. Unfortunately, this is just one of a number of incidents which leave you in no doubt that Sellers is a bit of a cad. The film does however attempt to get to the bottom of why Sellers was that way. An overbearing mother undoubtedly played its part. In one particularly cruel scene, his father lies dying in hospital for a week before Sellers is told, lest it affect his career.

The Pink Panther does of course play a pivotal role in the film, for it was the role of Inspector Clouseau which came to define Sellers, though he seemed to take no joy from it. This is quite a running theme throughout his life. An inability to be happy with anything be it success or affairs of the heart. Indeed, as times move on, his depression and demons overtake him, and at the end, there is nothing left. Not to over emphasis a cliché, but his greatest gift, his ability to inhabit a role to perfection, was also his greatest flaw. It ate away whatever personality he had to begin with.

Ultimately a sad tale of a complex and at times not very nice man, though a fascinating one all the same. It's really worth your time because for all his many flaws, he was a truly entertaining character and the film is filled with little incidents and anecdotes that keep it moving along; his development of the Clouseau character into a major role, his relationship with his directors, giants of the age such as Blake Edwards and Stanley Kubrick. 

Often the man makes the role, for Peter Sellers, the man was the role.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Flick of The Day: AntiTrust

There are some films that are worth seeing because they define greatness, they are the peak of the art form: Citizen Kane, Laurence of Arabia, etc. Then there are films that are worth seeing simply for the enjoyment of the genre be it thrillers or action pictures. Then there is that third category, films that by any measure are poor: badly scripted, irregularly acted, or perhaps laughable special effects but have something compelling about the story or the performance that makes it entertaining. 

Antitrust is just such a film. The setup is thus: Milo Hoffman, a confused looking Ryan Phillipe, is an idealistic young programmer who joins Gary Winston's NURV Corp (Never Underestimate Radical Vision). Winston is Tim Robbins doing his best impression of Bill Gates. Well, an evil Bill Gates, if such a thing existed. The real joy of this film is how completely over the top Robbins' performance is. Of course, as you've already guessed, all is not well at NURV, though I think even the most paranoid viewer won't how imagine how outlandishly bad NURV is.

Look out for the hidden surveillance centre camouflaged as...a day car centre. The tale told for all its faults is compelling enough and you may find yourself cheering at the ending, its just the poor script that lets this film down, take for instance this jargon heavy exchange:

Gary: We've loaded a back door to receive SYNAPSE transmissions on all of our OS software for the past 6 years. We've developed compression schemes and file formats that achieve conductivity, but.. We have a problem. You know what that problem is?
Milo: Ah, your adaptors can't overcome the band width limitation of wireless hand helds 
Gary:That's right

It's not all like this of course but it would help if Ryan Phillipe looked like he understood half the words coming from his mouth.
All in all, worth a look if you have an otherwise empty evening in front of yourself.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Flick of The Day: Brick

Film Noir is that most stylistic of genres, trading as it does substance and realism for an often rollercoaster ride to the dark side of town. Populated by cynical leading men and a host of seedy underworld characters, it exhibits a bleak view of humanity and arose primarily from the dark underbelly of domestic prosperity in America during the 1940s and 50s. Strictly speaking today's film is Neo-Noir, in that it attempts to recapture the spirit of those films in a modern setting. Brick, written and directed by Rian Johnson, was a big hit at Sundance in 2005.

The film's narrative centers on a hardboiled detective story that takes place in suburbia, specifically that most well travelled of film locations, an American High School. The film draws heavily in plot, characterization, and dialogue from films such as The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. Suspend your disbelief for a moment and take the story at face value and you will quickly get sucked into a gripping ride with a twist finale. Brendan, played by the then rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is the high school loner who has to try and penetrate the upper echelons of the school's social scene and its drug fuelled underbelly when he finds his ex-girlfriend's body in a storm drain, shortly after she made a cryptic call for help.  As always, to find out the true story, you have to watch the film.

This film could so easily have been a train wreck mixing as it does the high school genre and the dark heart of Film Noir however the script is well crafted enough and the leads so obviously enjoying themselves that it pulls it off. As mentioned the film is carried by the performance of its leading man, Jospeh Gordon-Levitt. His character is obviously intelligent, driven by guilt to find out what really happened to the woman he loved. However it's his everyman nature that will keep you caring about what happens to him and his quest for truth.

Shot in only 20 days on a minimal budget by a first time Director, this film punches far above its weight. If you love Noir, you'll love this, filled as it is with shady guys. femme fatales and sharp, pacy dialogue.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Flick of The Day: Midnight Run

It may sound strange now but there was a time way back when, right about when Richard Nixon was "resigning the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow", when the buddy picture was not a cliche. Think back if you will before Die Hard with a Vengeance, before the Lethal Weapon canon, before Stir Crazy, before The Odd Couple even if you can think back that far, when the idea of putting two mismatched personality types together for the purposes of a two hour film was an original idea likely to have your average studio exec admitting "I Like it". The ultimate odd couple is of course the original and best, Laurel & Hardy. Throughout their long pairing across more then a few true classics such as Sons of The Desert and Flying Deuces, the chemistry and fundamentals remained unaltered. The larger then life Ollie who always end up in a "fine mess" or the child like Stan who always comes out alright in the end. Audiences loved the characters and the comedy came from the fact that they were this odd couple.

Now, as time wore on, Hollywood has had come up with numerous different "odd couples" to sustain the genre and produce laughs, sometimes with success and sometimes without (Rush Hour??). So we come to the picture which is the focus of today's blog, Midnight Run. Featuring as it does one of the finest screen actors of his era, Robert De Niro, in a rare comic role or should that be rare successful comic role as the tough guy bounty hunter, Jack Walsh.  A role in which he was effectively acting as the comic foil to the superb Charles Grodin as the runaway accountant, Jonathan "The Duke" Mardukas. This is a fine addition to the genre.

As with all such pictures, the success of failure rests on the back and forth between the two main protagonists. This delivers in spades with a fine script by George Gallo, the basic premise being part buddy comedy part road trip as Jack Walsh is offerred $100,000 to transport imbezzeler Mardukas from New York to Los Angeles in 5 days. Of course this is easier said then done and much hilarity ensues but to find out you have to watch the movie.
Apart from the two main leads, there is some very fine supporting work from Yapphet Kotto, Dennis Farina and particularly John Ashton, as a rival bounty hunter, perhaps best known for his role as Taggart in Beverly Hills Cop.
All in all, a fine film which I urge you to watch if you get the chance.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Flick of The Day: Kingdom Of Heaven (Directors Cut)

In the early to mid Noughties, there was quite the resurgence in the old school swords 'n' sandals epics that had largely been extinct since their heyday in the 50's and 60's when films like The Robe, Spartacus or Cleopatra bestrode your Technicolour Cinemascope screen like the weighty tomes they were. Providing much needed work for the (mainly English) classically trained Shakespearean actors of the day, they were the zenith of the Studio picture which had defined an era which was soon to come to an end as the so called "movie brats" took over Hollywood, giving more power to the Director then at any time previously. These, the last greats of the Studio era, were epic in scope and scale. Cleopatra almost bankrupted its maker, 20th Century Fox, costing almost $300m when adjusted for inflation.

Actors like Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier or Peter O'Toole chewed through text like it was going out of style, which perhaps it was.
That's enough of a history lesson from the golden age for the moment though. Suffice as to say the historical epic never went away, it just got smaller and less frequent, which brings us neatly to that previously mentioned resurgence. It was perhaps inevitable that Ridley Scott's Gladiator would lead to more of the same after it won 5 Oscars and propelled Russell Crowe to international stardom upon its release in the Summer of 2000.

Unfortunately, it spawned a slew of films which ranged in quality from the awful such as Wolfgang Peterson's misbegotten Troy starring Brad Pitt in full on pretty boy mode to the downright dull in Oliver Stone's imagining of the life of Alexander The Great where all the Macedonians have Irish accents apart from Alexander played by the able Colin Farrell.
Ultimately, it took the man who had started this mini revival to bring about its end and perhaps produce one of the finest movies of the decade. Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. The story is set during the Crusades of the 12th century. A French village blacksmith goes to aid the city of Jerusalem in its defense against the Muslim leader Saladin, who is battling to reclaim the city from the Christians. The film script is a heavily fictionalised portrayal of Balian of Ibelin.

Right about now, you are perhaps considering the wisdom of bothering to read on and indeed questioning the sanity of this writer because you no doubt saw this critically mauled film upon its cinematic release in 2005. The current score on Rotten Tomatoes of 39% would perhaps indicate that this is not a film worthy of a second glance let alone of praise. However, you'd be wrong because while that film released in cinemas is a true dog, the Directors Cut of which I write is a different kettle of fish entirely.
The cinematic version comes in at 144 minutes and while there are some fine performances in it such as an all too brief appearance by Liam Neeson and some old school screen chomping from Jeremy Irons and David Thewlis, it largely does not really make much sense as so much of the scenes explaining the characters motivations are omitted. Indeed, a whole section of the plot involving the ascent of Sibylla's son to the throne is removed resulting in a mess of a film. Eva Green who plays the role of Sibylla of Jerusalem with aplomb goes from a small and underused role in the cinematic cut to a major character in the Directors Cut.

However when the film was originally submitted to the 20th Century Fox (remember them?) Studio Head, it was 194 minutes in length, this is the Directors Cut and the version I urge you to see. Studio head Tom Rothman ordered the film to be trimmed down to only two hours, as he did not believe that a modern audience would go to see a three hour and fifteen minute movie. In any case, they didn't go to see the two hour version either as Kingdom of Heaven earned a paltry $47m at the box office.

Ultimately, this film is a tale of the folly of religious conflict, something that is very relevant to modern times. It does play with historical accuracy for dramatic effect of course but you can't help but have your interest piqued in all things to do with that era after viewing it.

So, if you have the chance, seek out this hidden gem on DVD. It has Liam Neeson, the lovely Eva Green, Swords, Sandals, Battles on a grand scale and Yes that is Edward Norton as King Baldwin IV, the leper King.

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