Monday, February 28, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Untouchables

The rise and fall of Al Capone and the man who took him down, Elliott Ness, is a classic American tale. Its been told many times, both on screen and in television, but perhaps it has never been told as well and with such panache as this 1987 effort from Brian De Palma. Today's film is The Untouchables.
It is amazing how often great things come together almost by accident. A script developed by the famed Chicago playwright David Mamet that is unusually efficient in its use of dialogue, became attached to Brian De Palma, in need of a hit having not directed a successful film since 1983's Scarface. Robert De Niro took on the role of Al Capone only after Bob Hoskins had dropped out at the last minute. Add this to the talents of Sean Connery in a career best performance and Kevin Costner with a score by the legendary Ennio Morricone and the rest is history.
Set during the time of Prohibition, the film opens with the arrival or Elliott Ness, played with schoolboy charm and naivety by Kevin Costner, in Chicago at the behest of the Dept of Treasury to bring an end to the illegal liquor business and the violence that sustains it. He soon finds that everything flows through Alfonse Capone, a menacing performance from De Niro and that with corruption rife he has no hope of achieving his goal alone. A chance encounter with an ageing beat cop, Jim Malone, leads to the formation of a new unit, an incorruptible group with the sole goal of sending Capone to jail. Connery was justly lauded for his performance as Malone, winning Best Supporting Actor in that year's Oscars. His character is the emotional centre of the film and he acts as mentor to the initially naive Elliott Ness, guiding him through the often brutal encounters with the gangs that control the liquor market. As almost everyone now knows, Capone was finally taken down by a failure to pay his income tax. 
The actors are aided in their endeavours by a fine script from Mamet, containing some great lines of back and forth dialogue and a number of tour de force set-piece scenes for which the film is still fondly remembered today. The dialogue is typically Mamet.

Malone: Why do you want to be a police officer? 
Williamson: To protect the... people and the... p... 
Malone: I'm not looking for the textbook answer. Why do you want to join the force. 
Williamson: The force? 
Malone: Yeah, why do you want to join the force. 
Williamson: Because... I... 
Malone: Yeah? 
Williamson: ...think I could help. 
Malone: You think you could help. 
Williamson: ...with the force. 
Malone: Thank you very much, you've been most helpful. 
[Williamson leaves] 
Malone: [to Ness] There goes the next chief of police

Perhaps the most famous scene is the shoot-out on the steps of Union Station. In a tribute to Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin in which a baby in a crib fall's down the Odessa Steps during a massacre, as Ness is on the lookout for Capone's bookkeeper who is due to depart on the last train of the day. Of course the bookkeeper and his protectors arrive just as Ness is helping a woman lift her carriage up the steps. An elegantly filmed shoot-out ensues which is both balletic and bloody.
In summary, this is a true classic with a great cast, an excellent script and a great score from Morricone. Ultimately, it's just a great yarn that holds your attention from beginning to end. It is interesting that this film really was a career high for so many of those involved. De Palma hasn't made a great film since, with a number of turkey's along the way (Mission to Mars??). De Niro's career has trailed off as he increasingly takes on roles surely only for their financial reward, while both Sean Connery and Kevin Costner have had their ups and downs in the intervening years.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Flick of The Day: Say Anything...

Another day, another film from Cameron Crowe, after previous flicks of the day Almost Famous and Singles, today's film is a paean to teenage romance, Say Anything, his directorial debut and a big hit upon its release in 1989.
Say Anything is unusual among films of its genre, it takes an intelligent look at teenage romance without resorting to the usual teen movie clichés and stereotypes so common in American cinema. There are no jocks, no cliques and no cheerleaders. An impossibly young John Cusack, is Lloyd Dobler an average high school student with no real ideas or prospects as to what to do when he graduates apart from pursuing the best student in the class, Diane Court, played by the lovely Ione Skye. Against the wishes of her overbearing father, played against type by John Mahoney, perhaps best known for playing Martin Crane in TV's Frasier, Diane agrees to go out with Lloyd and gradually falls in love with his quirky sense of humour and mannerisms. The kind of character that John Cusack would make a career out of.  As their relationship deepens, Diane begins to feel guilty for spending too much time with Lloyd as her father is indicted for tax evasion.
Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to this film is that it neither talks down to its audience or panders to it. The characters are quite naturally drawn and look and feel like they exist in the real world. This is not the teenage fantasy land of 10 Things I Hate About You or She's All That. There are real issues and conflicts at the heart of this story. John Mahoney is excellent as the single father who appears to believe himself to be acting in Diane's best interests but then given the conclusion of the film, is he merely acting as an emotional blackmailer in all his dealings with Diane? This is not resolved satisfactorily and is just one example of the "grown-up" nature of the film.
Let's not forget that this is a romantic film and there is some great chemistry between the leads, aided by a fine script with some great witty lines that ring true.

"Lloyd Dobler: I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that."

Another prerequisite for any film like this is a great ending, something that affirms all that has come before it and this film has it in spades. The film is rightly remembered as a classic, particularly for that famous scene involving Lloyd, his boom-box and Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes". Ultimately, what makes this film is that its story is universal. It drags us back with a warm look at that brief half-life between the end of your school days and the start of real adult life. That kind of storytelling is a true gift. Check it out.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Flick of The Day: Singles

As a film-maker, Cameron Crowe has always had his finger on the pulse of popular culture in general and music in particular. From his background as a teenage music journalist which he chronicled in Almost Famous, music has always played an important part in his work and none more so then today's film, Singles.
Viewed purely as a historical document, Singles is a great chronicle of the Seattle scene of the early '90s and the alternative music scene that would explode into the public consciousness, producing some of the biggest and best bands of the last 20 years like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam. Indeed Pearl Jam appear as Matt Dillon's band Citizen Dick complete with Eddie Vedder on drums. There are cameos from some of the band members and the film is packed with a great soundtrack, acting almost as an extra character and perfectly setting the scene for the storyline. By the time of the film's release in 1992, the producers could no longer afford to put Nirvana on the soundtrack because grunge was the biggest thing in the world.
Apartment Block used in Singles
The story revolves around the lives and loves of a group of friends who live in the same apartment building in Seattle. Campbell Scott is Steve, a sensitive soul who works in traffic management and falls in love with Linda, ably played by Kyra Sedgwick. The pair meet at an Alice in Chains concert and fall in love but not without a few bumps along the way. Bridget Fonda, who plays ditsy blondes better then anyone, plays Janet a ditsy blonde who falls head over heels for Cliff, a layabout rocker played with great charm by Matt Dillon.  Indeed Dillon steals the film with some of the best comedic moments. The scene in particular where he installs a new stereo in Janet's car is hilarious.
The tale is told in a fragmented episodic format jumping from vignette to vignette with each of the character's taking a turn narrating their own tale with humour used well to avoid delving too deep into the pain of break-ups because lets face it, there are more then enough doomed romance films out there. This format is suited to the fragmented nature of young love, with people hopping from relationship to relationship. 
As usual with Cameron Crowe, great care is taken with the characters and by the end of the film; you do feel like you know them well. The film is a 100 minute glimpse into their lives and it feels like time well spent. The film is warm and yet honest and while the trials and tribulations of a group twentysomethings is not an original idea, its well done. That's not something that can be said of so many so called romantic comedies. 
Offering a great snapshot of Seattle, its music and cafe culture and telling a heart-warming story along the way, this is another fine film from Cameron Crowe and well worth seeking out on DVD.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Flick of The Day: 127 Hours

In April 2003, Aron Ralston, an American mountain climber and all round adventurer set off on a Saturday afternoon hike into Blue John Canyon in Wayne County, Utah. He would emerge 127 hours later, bloodied, battered and without the use of his right arm. Today's film, 127 Hours, is his story.
James Franco, in a tour de force performance, portrays Ralston as an arrogant adventurer with a devil may care attitude towards both his own safety and others. As the film opens, he is pounding around his home, throwing various items of kit in a backpack while a family member leaves what sounds like yet another voicemail. Crucially, he forgets his Swiss Army Knife, his hand passing over it in a dark cupboard. Soon he is on the road, travelling at night across the urban detritus that litters middle America. Neon brands polluting the night sky until eventually we reach the sparse desert landscape. The next day Aron sets off on his fateful hike, meeting two girls along the way and taking them cave diving. All the while, he exudes self assured cockiness, tripping along the canyons with abandon while listening to music and documenting his every thought on camera. The fall, when it comes, is not telegraphed and you can't help but feeling he had it coming. Those familiar with is tale will know he falls in such a way as his arm becomes trapped beneath a large rock. So begins 127 hours of struggling and fighting for survival.
This film lives or dies depending on the performance of Franco, much like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Thankfully, like Hanks classic performance, Franco is tremendous. He carries the film with a performance that travels from arrogant ass to acceptance of his own mortality to realizing that the situation he finds himself in is entirely of his own making. Real character development like that is so rare over the course of a ninety minute or two hour film. It is to Danny Boyle's credit that he draws this performance out of Franco by keeping the camera on him and in his face for as much as possible. This is Boyle's first film since the epic and all conquering Slumdog Millionaire. It is a fine follow up and doesn't shy away from the more gruesome aspects of Ralston's escape. The amputation when it comes is gritty and brutal but very real, not at all gratuitous and credit must be given to the make-up effects artists. Everything that leads up to that point makes it obvious that there is no other choice, it is his last resort and we empathise as an audience with his loss. Contrast this with the irritating man who opened the film, it shows real growth that by the end you care for his loss.
All in all, this is an excellent and suspenseful ride into a real life adventure. Danny Boyle once again proves himself to be one of the finest directors of his generation and James Franco finally lives up to the promise of his earlier career with an excellent performance. Well worth the price of a cinema ticket.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Vanishing / Spoorloos

Horror is a genre I tend to avoid, particularly the current "torture porn" craze epitomised by movies like Hostel and the Saw series. Gore and cheap theatrics do nothing for me but to each his or her own. That said, it is is human nature to enjoy the odd moment of fear once in awhile and scary movies tick this box. Today's film is a deeply disturbing psychological thriller from the Netherlands with a truly frightening ending, The Vanishing.
A hit in Europe on its release in 1988, this thriller directed by George Sluizer garnered great reviews upon its American release, so much so that it was remade in 1993, in a vastly inferior version starring Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges. The original is much less polished and is all the more chilling for it with a great ending. A young Dutch couple Rex and Saskia, played by Gene Bervoets and the lovely Johanna ter Steege, are travelling through France on a long hot Summer in 1984 as the Tour De France winds it's way through the French countryside. Stopping at a busy service station, Saskia goes to get a drink in the shop and disappears, never to be seen again. Rex initially waits and then searches for Saskia, to no avail, she has disappeared without a trace. Years pass, and Rex is unable to let it go, whether for love or obsession he has to know what happened to Saskia. We are introduced to Raymond, a truly creepy and disturbing creation of the late Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, your average family man with two children who enjoys experimenting with chloroform and trying to trick women into the back of his car. After 3 years, Rex begins to get taunting letters in the post. The killer is intrigued by his obsession with what happened to Saskia and eventually chooses to make contact with an offer of information. This leads ultimately to a shocking and affecting conclusion that will leave you thinking long after the credit have rolled.
An examination of evil and its ability to lurk beneath the surface of even the most innocuous fronts. Director George Sluizer created a minor classic with this film. It examines one man's obsession with wanting to know what happened and the dangers of knowing too much. It is also deliberate in its examination of the psychological trauma of losing somebody close to you. Rex never really recovers from losing Saskia and it leads him to making poor judgements, all in an attempt to know. The film has at times an almost documentary feel to it as it switches focus with an extended flashback, seemingly answering all of the viewers questions before its chilling finale which throws everything into the wind. Dark, disturbing, but inevitable given what has come before.
Raymond is a stunningly evil creation, perhaps because his evil is so subtle and under the surface. This is not some overtly psychotic character with a blood lust, such as you might see in many of Hollywood's creations.

"My daughter was bursting with pride. But I thought that her admiration wasn't worth anything unless I could prove myself absolutely incapable of doing anything evil. And as black cannot exist without white, I logically conceived the most horrible deed that I could envision right at that moment. But I want you to know, for me killing is not the worst thing"

All in all, this is a truly frightening piece of work with some fine central performances and subtle direction from Sluizer. It is worth seeing if only for the ending deemed too shocking for American audiences and altered for the far less subtle and ultimately run of the mill remake. Well worth a look.

Monday, February 21, 2011

2011 Oscar Predictions

Best Picture: 2011 has been a decent year by all accounts with some fine films to pick from. The nominees are: Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The Kings Speech, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter's Bone.

Who Should Win: True Grit, another beautiful film from the Coen's. With an honourable mention for Winter's Bone and The Social Network.

Who Will Win: The King's Speech. Apart from the performance of Colin Firth, this film is only so-so no matter what the opinion of the British press.

Best Director: Some of the finest young directors are nominated this year along with some previous winners. The nominees are: Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell, Tom Hooper, David Fincher, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Who Should Win: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, I don't believe in splitting the film and director nods so I had to choose the Coens.

Who Will Win: David Fincher. I have a sneaking suspicion that this will be Fincher's year and the academy will split the two main awards.
Best Actor: Some amazing performances this year from all of the nominees this year. The Nominees are: Javier Bardem, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Bridges, Colin Firth, James Franco.

Who Should Win: Colin Firth, the best performance of his career and an affecting, deserving winner.

Who Will Win: Colin Firth

Best Actress: An unusually good year for Best Actress. The nominees are: Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams

Who Should Win: Jennifer Lawrence, a deep and startlingly good performance that stood out above all the rest this year for me. Winter's Bone is a must see if you didn't catch it during its limited release.

Who Will Win: Natalie Portman, and I don't even think it will be close. All the pre-Oscar buzz has pointed toward Portman picking up the nod.

Best Supporting Actor: A difficult one to call this, all five nominees could be said to be in with a chance. The nominees are: Christian Bale, John Hawkes, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Geoffrey Rush.

Who Should Win: Jeremy Renner, another fine performance from Renner who won last year with The Hurt Locker.

Who Will Win: Christian Bale. I think Renner's win last year will count against him.

Best Supporting Actress: Another hard call. The nominees are: Amy Adams, Helena Bonham Carter, Melissa Leo, Hailee Steinfeld, Jacki Weaver.

Who Should Win: Hailee Steinfeld. An epic performance and who says a 14 year old can't win?

Who Will Win: Helena Bonham Carter, as part of the King's Speech sweep.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Some very fine adaptations this year. The nominees are: 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter's Bone.

Who Should Win: Aaron Sorkin surely has to win this time with his peerless adaptation of the Facebook story.

Who Will Win: The Social Network

Best Original Screenplay: The nominees are: Another Year, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King's Speech.

Who Should Win: Inception, Christopher Nolan deserves some reward for his complex Summer hit.

Who Will Win: The King's Speech. If the night goes their way, they could end up with a lot of award including this one.

We shall see what happens on the night. I would also expect Inception to take many of the more technical awards such as Visual Effects, Sound Mixing & Sound Editing. Toy Story 3 is also a certainty to win the Animated Feature award.

Flick of The Day: Miller's Crossing

We recently reviewed Joel & Ethan Coen's most recent film, the superlative True Grit, and today's film is another fine example of their varied career in Hollywood over the last 25 years from the edgy thriller Blood Simple, to the slacker comedy/ L.A Noir of The Big Lebowski, they have brought their own unique style and look to a wealth of different genre pictures. Today's film, Miller's Crossing,  is a homage to the classic gangster pictures and detective fiction of the 1930's particularly the work of Dashell Hammett.
It is I think an indication of both the intelligence of the average American cinemagoer and the skill or lack thereof of the marketing teams in Hollywood studios that this film was a relative box office failure upon its release in 1990. Of its budget of $14m, it returned only $5m, a drop in ocean compared to some of the more famous failures over the years, but a shocking one for a film of this class combining excellent performances from its central characters with one of the best scripts the Coen's have produced. 

Leo O'Bannion: You hear about Rug? 
Tom Reagan: Yeah, RIP. 
Leo O'Bannion: They took his hair, Tommy. Jesus, that's strange, why would they do that? 
Tom Reagan: Maybe it was injuns.

Gabiel Byrne's career has been pockmarked with roles in some awful films since he first came onto the scene on Irish TV in the early '80s. For every The Usual Suspects, there has been an End of Days or The Man in the Iron Mask, which is unfortunate as he is a decent actor when given good material to work with such as his recent turn in HBO's In Treatment. He steals almost every scene in Miller's as Tom Reagan, a well connected advisor to local boss Leo O'Bannon, played with a subtle toughness by Albert Finney. The film opens with a rival gangster, Johnny Caspar, played by Coen repertory member Jon Polito asking permission to kill a local bookie who has crossed him, Bernie Bernbaum. Bernbaum is played with an irritating sliminess by John Turturro another Coen regular. Leo is of a mind to protect Bernie as his girlfriend is Bernie's sister Verna, ably played by Marcia Gay Harden. Against Tom's advice, he refuses Caspar leading to a gang war. Tom appears to switch sides before playing everyone against each other for his own ends leading to a fitting and satisfying denouement.
The script is packed full of dialogue that feels very much of the era, with lots of obscure slang such as "yegg" and "twist" which give the script an air of authenticity. That said, its not all hard boiled stuff and there is a great deal of humour scattered throughout the film.

Verna: What you doing? 
Tom Reagan: Walking... 
Verna: Don't let on any more than you have to. 
Tom Reagan: the rain.

A special mention must also go to the cinematography of Barry Sonnenfeld, who would go on to achieve some renown as a director. All of the scenes in town where shot using Kodak film stock while those pivotal scenes played out in the woods were shot using Fuji film because this film had more muted green tones  and suited the ambience. One of the best scenes in the film is the perfectly choreographed shoot-out at Leo's house where a relaxing Leo turns the tables and a Tommy gun on a pair of assassins who come to rub him out, all set to a version of "Danny Boy" recorded for the film by legendary Irish tenor Frank Patterson.
As I said at the outset, it is a crying shame that more people didn't see this film upon its release though it has thankfully found a following on DVD and it was critically lauded at the time. I had the pleasure of seeing this on the big screen at a film festival a couple of years ago and it is fair to say that the cinematography deserves a big canvas. With a career best performance from Gabriel Byrne and fine turns from Albert Finney and John Turturro with a great script, this is a film you just have to see.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Royal Tenenbaums

Wes Anderson is the film making equivalent of Marmite, people either love or hate his work which is some of the most stylish in Hollywood today. All of his work from Rushmore to Fantastic Mr Fox are borne of the same unique style and idiosyncratic sense of humour. This creates a world in which Anderson can then tell the story, and as a viewer you either fall in love with his vision and design of the world or you don't. I would be in the former category.
The Royal Tenenbaums is perhaps Wes Anderson's most complete film. Combining one of his best scripts, written with Owen Wilson, with one of the great ensemble casts assembled in modern cinema. Gene Hackman, in one of his finest performances of a career filled with fine performances, is the family patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum, a feckless and conniving rogue who is estranged from his wife, the ever beautiful Anjelica Huston and his three "genius" children, Ben Stiller as Chas the business mogul, Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot the playwright and Luke Wilson as Richie the tennis pro. Add to this, Owen Wilson as a childhood friend of the Tenenbaums, Danny Glover and the always brilliant Bill Murray and you have a very fine cast, all who excel with Anderson's fine script.
Narrated by Alec Baldwin, the film is laid out like a novel, with chapters and a cast of characters. We learn of the three Tenenbaum children and their early success's and their later inability to adapt to the adult world, unhelped by the lack of a father figure with Royal estranged from the children. As part of his own machinations, Royal suddenly decides to take an interest in the family and attempts to worm his way back in to their hearts under the auspices of a terminal illness. Things work their way out in the end. Of course, there is a lot of humour along the way and the film's own personal style carries the tale along. When we meet the Tenenbaums as adults, they are a shadow of their former child genius selves. Gene Hackman has some of the best lines and steals most of the film.

[about Margot's play] 
Young Chas Tenenbaum: What'd you think, Dad? 
Royal: Didn't seem believable to me. 
[to Eli] 
Royal: Why are you wearing pajamas? Do you live here? 
Young Richie Tenenbaum: He has permission to sleep over. 
Young Chas Tenenbaum: Well, did you at least think the characters were well developed? 
Royal: What characters? There's a bunch of little kids dressed up in animal costumes. 
Young Margot Tenenbaum: Good night, everyone. 
Royal: Well, sweetie, don't get mad at me. That's just one man's opinion.

It's entertaining because Royal really is an irredeemable shit, and Hackman has great fun with the character aided by an excellent script. Its obvious that Anderson has a love for his characters and this shines throughout the film which is possessed of a warm heart. 

All in all, this is a great film with a stand out central performance from Gene Hackman aided by a fine ensemble cast and one of the best comedy scripts of the past ten years.  It pulls you into the unique world of the Tenenbaums and like all great films, you may not want to leave at the end. Anderson has never bettered this film though I still retain a soft spot for both The Life Acquatic and Fantastic Mr Fox.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Informer

Ireland has often been ill treated by Hollywood, from the various twee representations of a country that perhaps never really existed, to Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and many other horrid attempts at an Irish accent, to the frankly insulting clichés in the likes of Leprachaun and its ilk. However, today's film The Informant is a somewhat more well judged interpretation of Ireland.
Directed by the inimitable John Ford, The Informant is a classic tale, set in Dublin during the War of Independence. Gypo Nolan, played by an excellent Victor McLaglen, is a drunken Irish giant of a man with a child like understanding of the world around him.  Down on his luck in a fog filled Dublin, Gypo sees a wanted poster with a £20 reward for an old comrade in arms, initially torn as to what to do, he eventually decides to sell out his old friend to the British and use the money to escape to America. Of course his conscience begins to eat away at him and the films charts this course.
The film was a labour of love for John Ford, an Irishman in exile himself, legend has it that he forgoed his salary to see the film completed. The film revels in the kind of idealisation of romantic Ireland that only an ex patriot could muster. Dublin is permanently bathed in fog, ballad singers populate every street corner and whiskey is supped by the bottleful. The British are the worst of humanity and the IRA noble freedom fighters with religious devotion in their hearts. This doesn't grate as it might in the hands of a lesser film-maker then John Ford. It aids the telling of the tale. 
Mclaglen is excellent as Gypo, capturing the child like intellect yet brutish strength of the big lug. The story is filled with pathos for Gypo's deception is so obvious to all from the beginning. He is incapable of  seeing the true extent of his actions and yet does feel remorse. An audience can't help but empathise with the man and Mclaglen duly won an Oscar for his performance. 
What separates this film from other overtly twee representations of Ireland is the realism at its core. Ireland and its people have so often been betrayed by paid spies and informers from within their own ranks throughout its troubled history from the 1798 rebellion to independence. How different are the informers of those days from the corrupt system that has sold the country out to the IMF today? This story has a deep resonance and is as relevant now as it was upon its release.
An excellent film, backed by a strong leading performance and the peerless direction of John Ford, this is a must see for students of Irish Cinema and History. It has a fine script  with some great witty lines thrown in for good measure. A sad tale but even Gypo finds redemption.

"And now the British think I'm with the Irish, and the Irish think I'm with the British. The long and short of it is I'm walkin' around without a dog to lick my trousers!"

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