Monday, January 31, 2011

Flick of The Day: Only You

This is a very old school film. It harks back to a time of simpler fare, the kind of light romantic comedy that would have populated the cinemas on a weekly basis until the 1960s. This is perhaps most evident by the presence of director Norman Jewison, 84 years young who started off in television in the 1950s before making the leap into feature films, making some very fine films such as In The Heat Of The Night and And Justice For All while blazing new ground in terms of bringing taboo issues to the silver screen.
This however is not one of these films. As I said, its a trifle, an entertainment, something which will be forgotten as soon as its over. The story is a simple one. Fate (Marisa Tomei) is an English teacher obsessed with faith and destiny, and searching for the soul mate she discovered on a ouija board aged 11, Damon Bradley. So far, so barely plausible. Things take a turn for the worse, when she picks up a phone message, a week before her wedding from a Damon Bradley who is holidaying in Italy. So Fate and her put upon sister, the lovely Bonnie Hunt set off to Italy in search of the mythic Damon, visiting Venice, Rome and Positano while picking up Robert Downey Jr along the way. 
Of course, the real star is the beautiful Italian scenery from the Venetian canals to the Tuscan countryside. Jewison shoots the film with an eye for the spectacular, producing the best ad the Italian Tourist Board never commissioned. That said, there is much to enjoy. Downey Jr is charming in an off kilter sort of way and Tomei  is excellent coming off a trio of career highlights in My Cousin Vinny, Chaplin and The Paper. The plot may be deeply implausible, asking us to suspend our disbelief at times to the point of incredulity but it has a good heart, is well acted and finishes well which is more then can be said for so many pictures of this oeuvre.
While not a patch on Jewison's previous foray into rom-com territory, the enjoyable Moonstruck, this is a decent film and worth your time on an otherwise empty day if only to get you thinking about booking that Roman Holiday.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Flick of The Day: Blood & Wine

Director Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson have had a career long partnership, resulting in two of the best films to come out of the '70s generation, Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. Rafelson has said that this film, acts an unofficial finale to a trilogy started with the above.
Alex Gates, a dark and increasingly haggard Jack Nicholson, is a well to do wine merchant, whose business and marriage are quickly floundering in the Miami sunshine. His prescription drug addicted wife is resentful and suspicious of where he spends his nights, quite rightly too as it turns out. His step-son, a very young Stephen Dorff, has little but contempt for him. Meanwhile he is plotting with an ageing terminally ill Michael Caine to steal a million dollar diamond from a wealthy client. Add to this maelstrom, Jennifer Lopez as a scheming Cuban immigrant and you have a classic film noir setup.
Caine and Nicholson play well off each other, playing grotesque versions of themselves. Caine is excellent as old con getting more desperate as he gets closer to his reckoning. Nicholson is equally adept as a man reaching the end of his tether, largely due to his own mistakes. If there is one problem with all this, its that none of the characters are particularly likeable, and consequently you don't find yourself rooting for anyone as the double and triple crosses take hold as we head toward a denouement. Only Dorff comes out with any credit, as the strangely sullen son, who has no apparent interest in the wealth the diamond might bring.
Jennifer Lopez, deserves credit for making more of a role that otherwise would have faded into the background. Ultimately the film leads to a dissatisfying ending for all concerned but its interesting all the same, for the interplay between Nicholson & Caine, who have never worked together before. Like all film noir you get dragged into the tale and want to see where it goes, this one doesn't go where you want it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Flick of The Day: The King's Speech

I was initially wary of seeing this film, even though it has been nominated for 12 Oscars, mainly because it struck me as another one of those film's which keep the British film industry alive, being as it is the sick man of European cinema. It ticks all the boxes of such a film. Historical? Check. The Royal Family? Check. Classically trained actors in all the major roles? Check. Its got Jacobi and Gambon!
However, I was drawn to see it, based on word of mouth regarding the performance of Colin Firth as King George VI, Bertie to his friends and the King of the title. In a deeply affecting performance, he manages to capture the fear and frustration of those with a speech impediment. Watching him struggle to simply form sentences is difficult, for is speech not one of the fundamental abilities that makes humans as we are?
When we eventually get to the root of Bertie's ailment, you can only come to the conclusion that he suffered a very terrible childhood. The kind you would not wish on anyone and that it made him the flawed adult he was.
In one scene, he finds peace in simply making model aeroplanes, something he was forbidden to do as a child.
Firth is the main reason to see this movie but he is not the only reason. As I've said, there are fine actors scattered throughout. Helena Bonham Carter has great fun with the role of Bertie's wife and Geoffrey Rush brings his natural charm to the role of the speech therapist. He believes quite deeply that a speech impediment is something that can be overcome. through his unorthodox methods.
The film is to my knowledge largely historically accurate, though the idea of Guy Pearce as Colin Firth's older brother is laughable. The only criticism that might be levelled at the film is the implication that appeasement was only practiced by Neville Chamberlain and Edward VIII. It was a widespread view, particularly in the Royal Family. Winston Churchill was very much the outsider.
All in all, I enjoyed this film, though I don't feel it will be remembered as one of the great achievement's in cinema but Colin Firth's performance stands alone as one of the finest of the year. I hope he wins.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Flick of The Day: Sexy Beast

British gangster films have developed quite a poor reputation of late, thanks in part to the oeuvre of Guy Richie and Danny Dyer but that is to overlook a rich history of tales of the seamier side of  life with classics such as Brighton Rock, The Long Good Friday, and more recently today's film, Sexy Beast.
Gal (Ray Winstone) is an ageing paunched gangster retired to the Spanish countryside where he spends his days idling in the sun beside his pool and his nights relaxing with old friends. All is rosy in the garden until like a Titan from ancient Greece, old acquaintance Don Logan makes a surprise visit. Don wants Gal to take on...One Last Big Job. Suffice as to say, Gal is not keen to go back to England and Don is most insistent.
Ben Kingsley gives one of the great bad guy performances of all time as Don. He exudes evil, and is constantly verbally abusing Gal, taking it to a higher art form as he rants and raves:

"Don: Shut up, cunt. You louse. You got some fuckin' neck ain't you. Retired? Fuck off, you're revolting. Look at your suntan, it's leather, it's like leather man, your skin. We could make a fucking suitcase out of you. Like a crocodile, fat crocodile, fat bastard. You look like fucking Idi Amin, you know what I mean? Stay here? You should be ashamed of yourself. Who do you think you are? King of the castle? Cock of the walk?
[He gut-punches Gal]
Don: What you think this is the wheel of fortune? You think you can make your dough and fuck off? Leave the table? Thanks Don, see you Don, off to sunny Spain now Don, fuck off Don. Lying in your pool like a fat blob laughing at me, you think I'm gonna have that? You really think I'm gonna have that, ya ponce. All right, I'll make it easy for you. God knows you're fucking trying. Are you gonna do the job? It's not a difficult question, are you gonna do the job, yes or no?"

Tense is the only word for every moment Don is on screen. Everyone sits in silence as Don broods, knowing he could snap at any moment, and he frequently does with disastrous consequences for all. The film lags somewhat when Don isn't on screen, but Ray Winstone carries it through to the end. He is made for the character of Gal, a diamond geezer gone to seed in his Spanish villa. 
This film is not in the style of Guy Richie's Lock Stock et al and is all the better for it. It has a style all of its own. It is well worth the effort to seek this one out if you get a chance.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Flick of The Day: Wonder Boys

Film-maker Curtis Hanson followed up his Oscar winning crime drama, LA Confidential, with another adaptation in this small, fun literary comedy, set at an unnamed Pittsburgh University. The film chronicles a lost weekend in the life of novelist, Prof Grady Tripp, as his life falls apart around his ears and anything that can go wrong does go wrong.
Michael Douglas plays strongly against type, shedding his leading man image to play a scruffy, likeable professor suffering from writers block who spends his free time smoking marijuana. Struggling to write the follow up to his best selling novel of 8 years previous, his wife leaves him, his agent comes to town in search of the novel, all while Grady tries to keep one of his students out of jail. This all occurs during a weekend in which a literary festival, Wordfest, takes place on the college campus. Grady struggles to keep all of these balls in the air while events take one hilarious turn after another.
Douglas is fantastic as Grady Tripp, trying to maintain a calm exterior as things collapse around him. The script is peppered with numerous one liners of Douglas has some of the best:

Grady Tripp: I don't know. I'm still trying to figure out how to tell the Chancellor I murdered her husband's dog.
James Leer: You?
Grady Tripp: Trust me, James, when the family pet's been assassinated, the owner doesn't want to hear one of her students was the trigger man.
James Leer: Does she want to hear it was one of her professors? 

Grady Tripp: ...I've got tenure.

He is though part of a fine cast with Robert Downey Jr as Grady's deranged New York literary agent, out to have a good time at anyone's expense. Tobey Maguire stands out as the oddball student who goes off the rails over the course of the weekend, his natural standoffishness giving the character a peculiar but touching and endearing quality. Rip Torn also stands out as the narcissistic blow hard author, Quentin Morewood.
This is a very funny film, the dog assassination stands out in particular, but it does have a warm heart at its center. Grady eventually manages to get his life in order and like all great stories, the loose ends are tied up but not before we meander through a demi-monde of oddball characters, each bringing their own little part of the tale.
A commercial failure on its original release, this film deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible for it has a fine, funny script, and some great characters, which is more then can be said for so much of the current Hollywood output.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Flick of The Day: 25th Hour

Spike Lee exploded into the world of film in the 1980s with a fine d├ębut  in She's Gotta Have It, a comedy drama with an urban reality. However it was his third film, the incendiary Do The Right Thing, dealing as it did with race relations in New York's inner city, that really put Lee on the map as one of the finest, if controversial, film-makers of his generation. As time has passed, he has mellowed but his film-making only gets better, such as today's film, 25th Hour.
Monty Brogan, an excellent as usual Edward Norton, is a drug dealer with 24 hours to put his affairs in order before he heads off to prison for a 7 year stretch. He walks his beloved dog, Doyle, he says goodbye to his father, the superb Brian Cox and he goes out for one last night-out with his oldest friends. Jacob, a teacher played by Philip Seymour Hoffman who is in love with one of his teenage students shuffles through the movie, introverted, shy, but loyal to the end. Slaughtery played by Barry Pepper, a Wall St guy, cynical and arrogant but Monty's oldest friend.
Monty is saying goodbye to his life, his city and as the film moves on goes from grief to anger to acceptance. As the film opens, he is sitting on a bench by the river, thinking of how he got there, tinged with regret. An important aspect of this movie is that it was filmed shortly after 9/11 and Spike Lee devotes a number of important moments to the scars that are left on the City, his City, Monty's City, from the terrorist attack. At one point, we look into the crater left at ground zero. As Monty revisits his old haunts, he looks at the shrines to the dead fire-fighters in his Father's bar. 9/11 is ever present throughout the film.
Monty's anger is obvious, eventually exploding into a vicious rant at the whole city in a public toilet. Everyone is at fault in his eyes, you can feel the characters aimless anger:

"Fuck you and this whole city and everyone in it. Fuck the panhandler's grubbing for money, smiling at me behind my back. Fuck the squeegee men dirtying up the clean windshield of my car. Get a fucking job.  Fuck the Sikhs and the Pakistanis bombing down the avenues in decrepit cabs, curry steaming out their pores, stinking up my day. Terrorists in fucking training. Slow the fuck down!
Fuck the Chelsea Boys with their waxed chests and pumped-up biceps, going down on each other in my parks and on my piers, jiggling their dicks on my Channel!
Fuck the Korean grocers with their pyramids of overpriced fruit and their tulips and roses wrapped in plastic. Ten years in the country, still no speakee English. Fuck the Russians in Brighton Beach. Mobster thugs sitting in cafes, sipping tea in little glasses, sugar cubes between their teeth, wheelin' and dealin' and schemin'. Go back where you fucking came from. Fuck the black-hatted Hasidim strolling up and down the Street in their dirty gabardine with their dandruff, selling South African apartheid diamonds. Fuck the Wall Street brokers. Self-styled masters of the universe. Michael Douglas-Gordon Gekko wannabe motherfuckers figuring out new ways to rob hardworking people blind. Send those Enron assholes to jail for fucking life. You think Bush and Cheney didn't know about that shit? Give me a fucking break. Fuck the Puerto Ricans. Twenty to a car, swelling up the welfare rolls. Worst fucking parade in the city. And don't even get me started on the Dominicans,'cause they make the Puerto Ricans look good. Fuck the Bensonhurst ltalians with their pomaded hair, their nylon warm-up suits, their St. Anthony medallions, swinging their Jason Giambi Louisville Slugger baseball bats trying to audition for "The Sopranos." Fuck the Upper East Side wives with their Hermes scarves and their Balducci artichoke. Overfed faces getting pulled and lifted and stretched all taut
and shiny. You're not fooling anybody, sweetheart. Fuck the Uptown brothers. They never pass the ball, they don't want to play defense, they take five steps on every layup to the hoop, and then they want to turn around and blame everything on the white man. Slavery ended 137 years ago. Move the fuck on. Fuck the corrupt cops with their anus-violating plungers and their 41 shots, standing behind a blue wall of silence. You betray our trust! Fuck the priests who put their hands down some innocent child's pants. Fuck the church that protects them, delivering us into evil.  And while you're at it, fuck J.C. He got off easy -- a day on the cross, a weekend in hell, and all the hallelujahs of the legioned angels for eternity. Try seven years in fucking Otisville, J. Fuck Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and backward-ass cave-dwelling fundamentalist assholes everywhere. On the names of innocent thousands murdered, I pray you spend the rest of eternity with your 16 whores roasting in a jet-fuel fire in hell. You towel-headed camel jockeys can kiss my royal lrish ass."

Eventually, Monty comes to see that he has nobody but himself to blame but not before each of his friends, and his father blame themselves for not being there to save him from himself. In the end, all that's left is fear. Fear of what awaits him in Prison. Monty goes to his fate and in that is a kind of redemption. He sees the errors he has made and we can have hope for him as he goes off to prison, because of that epiphany.

A very fine film, played out by actors at the top of their game. This is one of the best films of the last 10 years and worthy of your time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Hunt For Red October

The first and by far the best of the film adaptations of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series of thrillers, today's film is a classic tale of adventure set during the cold war. The film opens with a great introduction which sets the tone and pulls the viewer in 

"In November of 1984, just before Gorbachev came to power, a Typhoon-class Soviet sub surfaced just south of the Grand Banks. 
It then sank in deep water, apparently suffering a radiation problem. Unconfirmed reports indicated some of the crew were rescued.
But according to repeated statements by both Soviet and American governments, nothing of what you are about to see...

Sean Connery steals every scene as Captain Marko Ramius, a Soviet submarine captain put in charge of a new class of nuclear submarine, The Red October, that cannot be detected by sonar. He puts to sea with orders to engage in exercises but instead steams toward the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The Russian government tells the Americans that he has gone insane and intends to attack the US but Jack Ryan believes his intention is to defect and so begins a race against time to find The Red October.
Legend has it that Sean Connery initially turned down the role after being faxed a copy of the script as he didn't believe it made any sense. It later transpired that the first page was missing from the script. A very young Alec Baldwin is very believable as CIA agent Dr. Jack Ryan, bringing just the right mix of academia and macho action man to a role later played by Harrison Ford in the inferior Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. There is very fine supporting work from Scott Glenn as a US submariner and Sam Neill as Ramius's right hand man on board the Red October.
The film is slow moving by modern standards, particularly for a thriller however this suits the story. It is contemplative and there just isn't that much eye candy to show on board a submarine. The strength of the characterisation and the rather enjoyable ending pull it through. A big hit in its day, this film has stood the test of time and is well worth a watch.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Flick of The Day: Hobson's Choice

Before he became a director of grand epics for the Hollywood studios with films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, David Lean had a long and distinguished career in British cinema, making some of the finest dramas of the golden age of cinema such as Brief Encounter and today's film, Hobson's Choice.
Starring the incomparable Charles Laughton as the Hobson of the title, this is a story of one man's inability to deal with the changing times around him. As any learned man will tell you, a "Hobson's Choice" is a contradiction in terms, no choice at all. This is what eventually faces Henry Hobson, a domineering drunk of a boot maker in 1880's Salford. He spends his days lording it over his daughters and his underpaid workers, and his nights drinking away the shop's profits in the local ale house. So it continues until his eldest daughter Maggie, stung by his mocking of her as an old maid, takes it upon herself to wed the boot boy who works in the basement of the shop, setting in train a series of events that leaves Hobson with his choice, his catch-22.
The boot boy, William Mossop is played by John Mills with an air of working class incredulity at the events that unfold around him as his new beau Maggie molds him from a leather worker into a man of business. Laughton dominates every scene he is in, as the overbearing patriarch who can't accept that he can't control the family around him.
Lean did not go onto be a great director when he moved to Hollywood, for he was already a great director. There is a lightness of touch and a light-heartedness to his direction. Henry Hobson is an oaf but he is no monster. This is not a Dickensian tale of the horrors of industrialisation, it is a simple tale of family life told with humour and panache. 
In 1957, Lean would turn his back on making small dramas in the crumbling post war British film industry, and move to Hollywood. In conjunction with producer Sam Spiegel, he made the classic Bridge on The River Kwai. Each film thereafter was bigger and grander then the last, filming on location on multiple continents to box office and critical acclaim. He is remembered today as one of the finest film-makers of all time. Charles Laughton also moved to Hollywood,  continuing to act to great acclaim and even directed a classic of his own, The Night of The Hunter, before his eventual death in 1962.
A very fine film, I would urge you to seek it out, along with many of the other Lean pre-Hollwood classics, many of which have been recently remastered by The British Film Institute.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Flick of The Day: Fitzcarraldo

In 1982, film-maker Werner Herzog set out into the Peruvian jungle to tell his story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, the Fitzcarraldo of the title, based on the true life tale of rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald. It was to be a mammoth shoot, the likes of which have never been seen and will probably never be seen again in terms of sheer spectacle.
Brian "Fitzcarraldo" Fitzgerald was a man with a dream, to bring an Opera House to the Amazonian jungle and to have Enrico Caruso sing at its opening. To pay for such a grand dream, he decides to set off up the river to the uncharted jungles rich in rubber trees to make his fortune in an old riverboat. To get to this, he must drag his ship over the mountains to the other side. An obsessive, Fitzcarraldo goes beyond all reason to achieve his dreams.

Some films are famed for the travails of their production, Fitzcarraldo is just such a film. Essentially a true life tale of the hubris of blind ambition without reason, its production became such a tale. Choosing to work without Studios and with no special effects, this film was a personal odyssey for Herzog. With Jason Robards originally cast as Fitzgerald and Mick Jagger as his assistant, the film was 40% complete when Robards fell ill with dysentery and had to leave the production. Jagger's role was written out of the film and filming started again from the beginning with the notoriously erratic Klaus Kinski in the title role. The troubles of the production are documented in Les Blanks "Burden Of Dreams" who followed the production from begging to end.
The really epic thing about this film is that there are no special effects. They really do drag that ship over the mountain. Those Indians did toil on the mountainside for days on end. Even more amazing is that in the real life story upon which the film is based, the boat weighed only 30 tons not the 300 ton behemoth of the film and it was never dragged over the mountain, merely taken apart and reassembled on the other side. By Herzog's own admission, this is unlikely to be attempted again. You may wonder while watching it, what possessed him to attempt it. Was it hubris? Regardless, it makes for gripping viewing and that along with the magnificent imagery of the Amazon make an epic film. Perhaps the answer for Herzog's vision lies in a line from the film spoken by Claudia Cardinale:

"Its only the dreamers who move mountains"

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