Thursday, April 28, 2011

Flick of The Day: L.A Confidential

The work of American novelist James Ellroy is notoriously hard to adapt for the screen, written as it is in short staccato sentences with dense plotting involving numerous strands and characters. This is its strength as fiction but obviously harder to carry onto the big screen. If this in done badly, you get a flop like Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, if done well, you get today's flick of the day, L.A Confidential one of the best films of the 1990's and a multiple Oscar winner.
Apart from a great script from director Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland which successfully reduces the scope of Ellroy's novel while still retaining the core story, the other main strength of this movie is a cast to die for. Russell Crowe is a violent yet good hearted Detective Bud White, James Cromwell is his Machiavellian commanding officer, Captain Dudley Smith. Guy Pearce is Edmund Exeley an up and coming strait laced star of the LAPD. Kevin Spacey, is Hollywood Jack Vincennes, an amoral cop to the stars. Kim Basinger is Lynn Bracken, a high class call girl whose career is managed by millionaire Pierce Morehouse Patchett, a brilliant turn from David Strathairn and finally Danny DeVito as the sleazy magazine editor Sid Hudgens.
Set in 1950s Los Angeles, the film opens on Christmas Eve when a group of drunken detectives attack some newly apprehended suspects in an event the press dub, "Bloody Christmas". Thereafter in an attempt to clean up the force, the top brass seek to prosecute the officers involved. Keen to move up, Exeley agrees to testify against his own colleagues, making him a hated figure while Bud White and Jack Vincennes refuse. The film then follows the rise and fall of these three detectives and their boss, Captain Smith. They become embroiled in the investigation of a shocking massacre at a late night coffee shop that may or may not involve organised crime. However all is not as it seems, and  an intricate plot leads to a great twisting conclusion involving drugs, prostitution and police corruption that goes to the very top. 
With a plot dense enough to match the great of the genre like Chinatown or The Big Sleep, this is a great detective yarn. Hanson has managed to perfectly capture the glamour and sleazy underbelly of post-war Los Angeles. Down to a tee, everything feels perfectly of the period in terms of fashion, decor and location. It sucks you into the period and tells a great story.The film received 9 Oscar nominations but lost in almost all categories due to the unstoppable juggernaut that was Titanic. It is shocking now to think that a film as poorly written and acted as Titanic outshone this picture but such are the unknowing ways of the Academy. One of the few awards it did win was for its screenplay, adapted as I've said by Hanson and Helgeland which is well deserved as the film is endlessly quotable.

Bud White: Merry Christmas. 
Lynn Bracken: Merry Christmas to you, officer. 
Bud White: That obvious, huh? 
Lynn Bracken: It's practically stamped on your forehead

This really is a must see film, combining a great cast with a fine script to produce a really old-fashioned actor driven movie, the kind that studios either don't want to make or are unable of making. They seem more and more interested in producing thrash in a 3D glaze with each passing day. I am no luddite and have never been against the use of advancing technology in cinema but it should not be at at the expense of basic storytelling. It is telling that this film lost out to effects driven schlock like Titanic, telling and disappointing. A great film.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Flick of The Day: The African Queen

We have looked at the work of Humphrey Bogart before in The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon which was the first collaboration between Bogart and director John Huston. Perhaps their most famous collaboration is today's flick of the day, The African Queen. A film as famous for its laborious location shoot as for the end result, it is a great technical achievement even today its arduous shoot earned Bogart and co-star Katharine Hepburn Academy Awards nominations.
Adapted from a novel by C.S Forester, the African Queen is set in East Africa during World War 1 and stars Bogart as Charlie Allnut, a gin swilling slob of who captains the steam boat of the title, delivering supplies up and down the river. Hepburn is her usual prim self as Rose Sayer, this time the sister of a missionary who dies when the Germans invade. Allnut offers to take Rose back to the civilisation and together the two begin an arduous journey down the river. Charlie mentions in passing that the Germans have a gunboat, the Louisa, that controls the lake into which the river drains. Rose becomes obsessed with sinking the gunboat, perhaps for retribution at the death of her brother or perhaps for a need to do something to help the war effort. In either case, Charlie believes navigating the river will be suicide enough without turning their small steam boat into a torpedo boat. The pair overcome a number of obstacles, from white water rapids to a German Fort, gradually revealing the softer sides of their characters to each other and falling in love. When they eventually make it to the lake, they are resolved to sink the Louisa.
As noted at the outset, this film is best remembered for the filming of it as much as anything else. The shoot was over 4 months on location in the Congo and Uganda. This was not your typical Hollywood shoot with Bogart's wife Lauren Bacall on set for the duration and in her own words acting as cook, nurse and clothes washer. To combat the threat of disease, both Bogart and Huston survived on a diet of canned food and Scotch whiskey, more of the latter than the former. It worked as almost everyone else in the cast came down with dysentery during filming. As Bogart explained:

"Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead"

Hepburn, who did not drink, fared much worse, losing weight and getting very ill at one point. Despite this, the cast and crew pulled through and overcame many other obstacles such as marauding hippos and a boat fire to put together a memorable film. The shoot was documented in Clint Eastwood's fictionalised White Hunter, Black Heart
The true strength of the film is the interplay between Bogart and Hepburn, for they are the only ones on camera for most of the film. If they don't gel, then you don't really have a film, thankfully they make great sparring partners.

Charlie: All this fool talk about The Louisa. Goin' down the river... 
Rose: What do you mean? 
Charlie: I mean we ain't goin' to do nothin' of the sort. 
Rose: Why, of course we're going! What an absurd idea! 
Charlie: What an absurd idea! What an absurd idea! Lady, I may be a born fool, but you got ten absurd ideas to my one, an' don't you forget it!

This apart, the film is a romantic melodrama with adventure elements, it is however a fun journey all the same, holding your interest as they go from A to B. The difficulties involved in filming are obvious throughout, from the leech invested waters where only for Bogart's objection, they would have used real leeches at John Huston's request. Even for a director as peerless as Huston, this stands out as an achievement.
All in all, a fine film which earned Bogart his only Oscar win, a crying shame for perhaps the greatest leading man in cinema history. A great script and an interesting tale are combined to great effect by John Huston. It is well worth seeking out for a viewing.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Flick of The Day: Far and Away

Given that it is Easter week and the 95th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion of 1916, it would seem ideal to take the opportunity to review a film with an Irish connection. The last such film we examined was John Ford's The Informer, which takes a romanticised look at the Irish rebellion. Today's flick of the day is an altogether more modern affair, Ron Howard's Far and Away.
Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, then very much at the height of their powers, Far and Away is an epic tale of romance and adventure in 1890's Ireland and America. At the film's open, we are given a brief outline of the struggles of Ireland's masses against the powerful Landlords that control their country before being introduced to Joseph Donnelly, played by Cruise sporting an Irish accent that is not awful but uneven, sounding as if he is from Ulster, Munster, Connacht and Leinster in the space of a few lines of dialogue. However, that said his performance is quite restrained and doesn't play to any stereotype too much. After Joseph's father dies and his home is burnt by his Landlord for non payment of rent, he vows revenge. He makes his way to the Estate of the Landlord, Daniel Christie, on the back of a donkey and with a rusty rifle in hand. Christie is played with wit and charm by the legendary Robert Prosky of Hill Street Blues fame. As he hides in the stables with the intention of murdering Christie, he is discovered by his daughter Shannon, played by Kidman. After a series of events, the two end up running away together, taking passage on a ship bound for America. Shannon is motivated by a wish to break free from her parents and Joseph by the prospect of owning his own land. Suffice as to all does not go according to plan on their arrival in Boston. Shannon is robbed of her wealth and forced to live with Joseph in a doss house, under the thumb of a Tammany Hall style Ward Boss played by Colm Meaney. After a series of trials and tribulations, including a bare knuckle boxing career for Joseph, the film climaxes with the Oklahoma Land Race of 1893.
The best compliment that can be paid this film is that it is at times visually stunning. It is probably the last film to be shot in 70mm Super Panavision and this gives the photography and epic grandeur. The land race is a highlight, using a huge amount of extras and shot with a wide focus, it is a spectacle to behold. It is a shame that the use of 70mm never really took off for it gives films the kind of stunning visual quality that television can never deliver. That said, key sequences of Christopher Nolan's Inception were shot in 70mm so hopefully it might tempt other film-makers to make use of this format.  The film is stylish throughout with location shooting in Ireland and lavish period sets throughout, the film's strongest suit is its visuals.
That said, the script is not without its moments, dramatic in tone but with some fine humorous scenes and interplay particularly between Shannon and Joseph. 

Joseph Donnelly: [about Grace] Grace isn't a tramp. She's a dancer in the Burley-cue. 
Shannon Christie: That's not dancing. That's kicking her knickers up. I suspect if you asked her to, she'd kick her knickers off. 
Joseph Donnelly: Oh, maybe she would. 
Shannon Christie: Has she? 
Joseph Donnelly: Let me see... I'm trying to remember. 
Shannon Christie: Well, think hard! If there's any brains left in your head!

Kidman and Cruise are fine in their respective roles and aided by a fine supporting cast led by Colm Meaney carry the film to its natural conclusion. As mentioned previously, the accents are none too heinous which is always key in any Irish role. It helps that they were a couple while making this film as there is obvious chemistry between the two which no doubt helps the film's romantic subplot. 
All in all, a worthy addition to the canon of the Irish themed cinema. Visually enjoyable and a decent snapshot of the immigrant experience in America in the 1890's. Cruise and Kidman are strong and the tale is compelling enough to carry the audience through to the end. Well worth a look.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Flick of The Day: Aliens

A few weeks back, we reviewed Ridley Scott's Alien, noting how it builds the tension through a creepy atmosphere to great effect. How then to follows this up? Once the cat is out of the bag so to speak, how do you create a follow up that is as tense, frightening and entertaining as the original? This was the task facing director James Cameron in 1986 with today's flick of the day Aliens. He delivered a modern classic by combining ground breaking special effects with pacy storytelling and another great performance from Sigourney Weaver that resulted in 7 Oscar nominations.
The film opens as its predecessor ended, with Ripley, again played by Weaver, in hypersleep with her tabby cat having vanquished the alien from her life boat. Her boat is picked up by a passing space ship and she is rescued. After receiving medical care, she is awoken with the news delivered by her company's representative Carter Burke played by Paul Reiser, that she has been adrift in space for half a century and that the planet where they discovered the alien life as since been colonised. Her account of the destruction of the ship and the attack of the alien is met with ridicule and scepticism and she is removed from her position as a Warrant Officer. Initially depressed, she retreats from life, her family and relatives having long since passed away.  Soon, Reiser and a Colonial Marine return to her seeking help, contact has been lost with the colony and they are going to investigate.  Ripley initially refuses to help before relenting, haunted as she is by nightmares of her last encounter with the alien. Arriving to find the colony deserted, Ripley, Carter and the marines are soon in a fighter for survival as the planet is overwhelmed by the alien hoardes. 

While Alien was much more sombre in tone with a deliberately gradual escalation of tension, James Cameron's Aliens is much more action oriented but is no loss thrilling because of it. The special effects are used to great effect, in Cameron's own words, his plan from the beginning was to focus "more on terror, less on horror". The cast spend much of the movie confined to a small space fighting off the oncoming Aliens or moving through the darkened colony searching for human life. This creates an atmosphere of fear, of not knowing what is coming round the corner both literally and metaphorically. Again unlike the original, the character of Ripley is no longer a victim seeking to survive and escape the horror but a veteran out to kill the aliens off once and for all. This makes for an entertaining film.
If there is a criticism of this film to be made, it is that the film largely follows the same dynamic as the original but with a cast that is less developed, characters often seemingly there only to get squashed by the aliens and a script that is at times poor. The dialogue exists only to drive the plot forward.

Ripley: Lieutenant, what do those pulse rifles fire? 
Gorman: 10 millimeter explosive tip caseless. Standard light armor piercing round, why? 
Ripley: Well, look where your team is. They're right under the primary heat exchangers. 
Gorman: So? 
Ripley: So, if they fire their weapons in there, won't they rupture the cooling system?

That said, the film is always entertaining and action packed in a way few directors can deliver better then James Cameron. For all his many faults, the man can deliver an action sequence better then almost anyone else.
All in all, a fine sequel to a great film with enough cracks to see how things went so badly wrong with the next outing. Sigourney Weaver is excellent once again as Ripley, creating a heroine that shines through a clunky script. Cameron makes great use of the special effects available to him at the time and the film is an action packed adventure that doesn't slow down from the moment they arrive on the colony. A worthy addition to the genre and well worth a look.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Flick of The Day: Waltz With Bashir

Our first animated flick of the day is this 2008 film from Israeli film maker Ari Folman, Waltz With Bashir. It is part documentary, part personal memoir, examining the events that unfolded one night in September of 1982 in two Beirut refugee camps that would soon become known throughout the world, Sabra and Shatila. 
In 2006, Ari Folman met an old friend from his Army service days who told him about the nightmares he has of those days, the darkest of the Lebanon War. In a vivid scene he describes his nightmares, in which he is chased through the streets by 26 vicious dogs.  This surprises Folman, as he has no memory of the period, bad or otherwise. That night as he sleeps, he has a dream himself. He is walking from the sea with his fellow soldiers as flares are fired over the city of Beirut. This inspires him to investigate his past, to find out what it is that he has forgotten. He travels around the world, meeting old friends and acquaintances from that period trying to fill in the gaps. Piece by piece, the story comes together and we see what he saw in Lebanon resulting in a shocking conclusion that will surely haunt him for the rest of his days. The film ends with actual news footage of that day with no comment, no music and is an incredibly powerful coda.
If there were any doubt that animation held the power to tackle substantive and adult issues then this film will sweep them away. Animation is just as valid an art form as any other, and is not only for the entertainment of children. A story like this would be almost impossible to film normally without a major Hollywood budget and even then it is doubtful whether the tale could be told with such vigour.  The animation is sharp and bright and it moves along at the pace of the investigative thriller it is.  The ending when it comes, is shocking and revealing. For those unfamiliar with the events of Sabra and Shatila, they were refugee camps populated by Palestinian families fleeing the civil war and by September of 1982, the two camps were under the protection of the Israeli Defence Forces. On September 14th, the Christian President of Lebanon,  Bachir Gemayel was assassinated. This enraged his supporters who mistakenly believed his murder to be the work of the Palestinians, when in reality it was orchestrated by Syrian agents. They sought revenge and the nearest target were the refugees supposedly under the protection of the Israelis. However, under the direct orders of Ariel Sharon, the Israel Defence Minister, the Christians were allowed to enter the camps and told the Palestinians were responsible  for the assassination. While the Israeli soldiers stood by, they massacred 3,000 men, women and children.
The imagery is brilliantly entertaining throughout, often viewing events through the innate psychedelia of the human mind. I think Folman achieves his goal of getting a message across by creating a film that is always entertaining, never po faced. While dealing with a harrowing event in a sober manner, it manages to be gripping throughout and until the final frame wears its subject matter lightly. This is art of the highest form.
A great film from the first to the last, and a personal triumph for Ari Folman. This is something that you should see.  Folman trusts his viewers enough to let us see Sabra and Shatila through his eyes and in the final scenes shocks us with the truth.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Flick of The Day: Close Encounters of The Third Kind

Steven Spielberg followed up the success of Jaws with this sprawling epic picture. A classic of the science fiction genre  and a massive hit on its release in 1977, the same year as George Lucas first Star Wars picture. In my humble opinion, Close Encounters is the far superior of the two though in truth they are not aimed at the same audience. Close Encounters is much more adult in tone and asks the viewer to engage more with the material.
The film opens in the Mexican desert, a French scientis named Lacombe and a team of American Army personnel discover a squadron of WW2 planes missing since the 1940's. In the heart of the Gobi desert, they find a missing ship. Later an airline pilot reports a near collision with an unidentified flying object to air traffic controllers in Indiana.  That night in Indiana, a young boy named Barry awakes to find his toys operating automatically, he follows some unseen figures into the fields near his house. Separately, a electricity lineman named Roy Neary, brilliantly played by Richard Dreyfuss, is trying to fix a fault on a lonely country road when he a close encounter with a UFO. Roy gives chase along with the police. Thereafter, nobody is the same again. Roy becomes obsessed with the UFO's, obsessed with a shape in his head that he can't leave behind. His marriage begins to disintegrate around him. Barry's mother becomes equally involved, particularly after her son is abducted by forces unknown.  Elsewhere, the UFO activity is increasing and as Lacombe and his team move from site to site, they become aware that the witnesses all report the UFO's making a distinctive five tone sound. They are trying to make contact. All of the characters stories then converge in a thrilling finale at the Devils Tower in Wyoming.
In an intereview given in 1990, when asked to choose an image to summarise his career, Spielberg chose the above. It is a striking image as the young Barry opens the door of his house in a brilliant orange light. It is just an example of a film brilliantly shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. The special effects were ground breaking for their day and unlike so many sci-films, it doesn't attempt to re-invent the wheel. It is the ordinariness of the various locations that makes it so compelling: the small town, lonely rural locales. As with Spielberg's later work E.T, there is the theme of  a broken family. Roy's wife leaves him and takes the children, unable to deal with his obsession. The children unable to understand what has happened to their hard working father. Barry's mother, a single mother it should be noted has her child abducted. It is this sadness, this sense of family that endears Spielberg as a film-maker so much. He has often been criticised for being overly sentimental but this sentimentality is at the core of his talent. He makes the audience empathise. Who can ever forget the little girl in red in Schindler's List
This is a great film, one of Spielberg's best with a towering performance of depth from Richard Dreyfuss, fine cinematography and an engaging tale that deals with the psychological impact of those who claim to experience encounters with alien life. A must see.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Verdict

The American director Sidney Lumet passed away earlier this month at age 86. This master of cinema left behind a body of work that would be the envy of any director. Spanning the ages, from the classic and oft imitated 12 Angry Men to 70's new Hollywood fare like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and ground breaking work like media satire Network. Today's flick of the day is another of his finest films, The Verdict.
Paul Newman, is Frank Galvin, an ageing alcoholic attorney with a broken marriage in his past and a baggage filled career. He spends his days drowning Bushmills in his local bar while playing pinball, and trying to pick up clients at funerals, preying on the grief of others. He is in a bad way, and in one last attempt to help him, an old friend and mentor Mickey played by Jack Warden throws him a medical malpractice case to get him back on track. Warden is superb throughout, acting as the rock that supports Frank. The case in question appears like an easy pay day. A young woman goes into the hospital to have her third child, and is given the wrong anaesthetic leading to her slipping into a coma after severe brain damage. The hospital is owned by the local archdiocese who are keen to cover up the mistake. They offer to settle but against his clients wishes Frank goes to court. It is as much about his own redemption as getting justice for his client who has been grievously wronged. On the opposing side, is a conniving Judge, played by the great Milo O'Shea who doesn't want the case in his court and a defence lawyer who is without scruples, in an Oscar nominated performance from James Mason. Against all the odds, Frank tries the case and as the obstacles mount up, gives his all in the search for justice, including sacrificing his relationship with Charlotte Rampling who has more to her then meets the eye.
The actors are aided in their performances by a great script from David Mamet, whose fine work we have reviewed before. The dialogue gets to the heart of the matter and offers some great interplay between the characters, particularly in the court room scenes. The shocking testimony of the admitting nurse is a highlight when James Mason breaks the cardinal rule of cross examination, asking a question you don't know the answer to. You will almost feel the urge to cheer to finally see the good out.

Judge Hoyle: It seems to me, a fellow's trying to come back, he'd take the settlement, get a record for himself. I, myself. would take it and run like a thief. 
Frank Galvin: I'm sure you would.

This is after all the classic tale of David Vs Goliath. Paul Newman excels in the role of Frank Galvin, another in the long line of great performances earning him his fifth of eight Oscar nominations. Lumet shoots the film with a lot of wide angles, we are viewing this as outsiders. It is almost a documentary feel, an indictment of the American justice system and how hard it is to obtain justice.
The film isn't showy, Boston is a dark cold city, permanently bathed in snow. All of the interiors seem weathered and have seen better days, much like Paul Newman's Frank. There is very little music, indeed very little noise of any kind, focusing the viewer's attention on Newman's performance, which as I've said is superb.

Frank Galvin: You know, so much of the time we're just lost. We say, "Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true." And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead... a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims... and we become victims. We become... we become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law. You ARE the law. Not some book... not the lawyers... not the, a marble statue... or the trappings of the court. See those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are... they are, in fact, a prayer: a fervent and a frightened prayer. In my religion, they say, "Act as if ye had faith... and faith will be given to you." IF... if we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And ACT with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts

All in all, a great film, not Lumet's best but its definitely up there. A host of great actors, Newman, Mason and Warden make the best of a great Mamet script. What else can I say?

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