Monday, May 30, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Day of The Jackal

The relative success or failure of a film today is generally measured, at least by the film industry, in terms of its box office prowess. However, it goes without saying that in the history of cinema, so many of the truly great pieces of art made little or no money for entirely valid reasons. It has often been the case that a perfectly acceptable film has failed to find an audience.Today's flick of the day, The Day of the Jackal is one such film. Based on a best-selling novel and with an expensive location shoot, this political thriller was a failure on its release in 1973.
Set in 1963, Jackal is the story of the attempts of the OAS, a network of French soldiers formed with the intention of killing French President Charles De Gaulle in retaliation for his betrayal of Algeria. After a string of failures and in desperation the OAS decide to hire a foreigner, a contract killer known only as The Jackal. Played with a cool detachment by Edward Fox, chosen as he was a then relative unknown, the film charts his meticulous planning for the main event which climaxes the film. Running concurrently to this is the efforts of the French police to capture the Jackal, led by Inspector Lebel, played by the ever ever wonderful Michael Lonsdale. The film is tense and engrossing and climaxes with a dramatic and surprising ending on the streets of Paris.
Jackal is directed by Fred Zinnemann, perhaps best remembered today for High Noon and From Here to Eternity, the film is a solidly rewarding thriller. The film oozes substance and expense throughout, with a strong supporting cast of British theatricals including a young Derek Jacobi and a host of European location shoots. This would all be for nought were it not for the fact that film is genuinely entertaining with a strong performance from Edward Fox, giving the character an icy self-assuredness. It helps of course that Forsyth's source novel is filled with the kind real world detail and historical events that give this film an air of realism and raise it above the rest of the genre.
Though a box office failure, this is an interesting thriller and well worth a a reappraisal. As with almost all original stories, this was the subject of a remake in 1997 starring of all people Richard Gere and Bruce Willis. Suffice as to say, though only loosely based on the original, it was awful though perhaps worth viewing if only to experience the breathtakingly horrible Irish accent sported by Gere.
In the final reckoning, this is a decent if not spectacular 70's thriller with a strong cast and an engaging tale at least partially drawn from recent French history. If anything, it shows that you cannot judge a book by its cover or a film by its box office takings. Zinnemann would direct two more film's before his death in 1997 while Edward Fox has built a solid career as a TV actor. Well worth a look.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Flick of The Day: Good Morning, Vietnam

Today's flick is a landmark comedy set in the Vietnam war, Good Morning Vietnam and the first film to prove that there was more to Robin Williams then a great stand-up act and Mork & Mindy. In an wonderful performance, he brings his improvisational humour to bear and elevates the film to a different level.
Robin Williams is Adrian Cronauer, an Airman sent to Saigon in 1965 from Crete to act as a DJ on the US Armed Forces Radio Station in Vietnam. His crazed stream of consciousness humour is in stark contrast to the staid by the book announcers the station normally employs and Cronauer is soon in trouble with his immediate superiors, in particular the uptight Sgt Major Dickerson played by J.T Walsh much to the alarm of the underling assigned to look after him, Private Garlick, an impossibly young Forest Whitaker. Cronauer soon meets and fall in love with a Vietnamese girl and befriends her brother along the way. It soon becomes apparent that Dickerson is willing to go to any length to get rid of Cronauer, despite the support he enjoys amongst the top brass and the reality of the War in Vietnam soon hits home.
The real reason to see this film is of course Robin Williams. He inhabits the character of a Radio DJ completely. Many of the on air scenes are improvised, with Williams proving his abilities as a funny man without peer. 

Dickerson: This is not military issue, airman. What sort of uniform is that? 
Adrian Cronauer: Cretan camouflage sir. If you want to blend in with a bunch of drunken Greeks there's nothing better. 
Dickerson: That is humor. I recognize that. I also recognize your brand of soldier.

Watching the film today, it is is easy to see why Williams won such acclaim for his performance including an Oscar nomination.  However humour alone would not be enough to carry the film, the film contains real heart and recognises the tragedy that was the Vietnam conflict. For all that the pithy and satiric humour carry the film, it would be a lesser film if it didn't take a serious turn in the final act.
Barry Levinson handles this transition well, and Williams is as adept at scathing remarks about the futility of the war as he is one-liners. This is a great film and a worthy addition to the genre.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Flick of The Day: Forrest Gump

Cinema has always had the power to divide people, from the silent era race baiting of D.W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation to the propaganda film's of Leni Fiefenstahl. In the modern era, there is often a divide between critics and audiences in terms of the relative worth of a film. As the box office success of the Fast and Furious saga attests, critical derision is no barrier to financial reward. Today's flick of the day, Forrest Gump, is a divisive film in its own way. Very much the Marmite of 90's Oscar Winners, you either feel is a banal pop culture confection or a technically brilliant ode to the 20th Century. 
Forrest Gump is a man of limited intellect who achieves more in an eventful life then more worldly individuals could dream of, the film acts as his life story. Tom Hanks deservedly won an Oscar for a compelling performance. Opening with his childhood in small town Alabama, from the cruelty of his fellow schoolchildren to the travails of his childhood sweetheart, Jenny, played by Robin Wright, the film moves along at a cracking pace. Through the wonders of technology, Forrest is inserted into news footage of the day as his life crosses paths with important figures from 20th Century history like JFK, John Lennon and events like Watergate and Vietnam. It is some life, without an inkling of effort Forrest becomes a College football star,  a Vietnam war herospeaks at an anti-war rally at the Washington Monumentdefeats the Chinese at table tennis, and finally opens a profitable shrimping business before deciding to run back and forth across the country for several years.
The real genius of the film is it's nostalgia for the latter half of the last century. There is not an important event in recent American history which Forrest doesn't in some way come across, and the film is carried along by a great soundtrack of the era. From Elvis Presley in his youth, to the classic sixties sounds of The Doors, CCR, et al and the late seventies work of Fleetwood Mac and the disco era. It often feels like a really long episode of Reeling in the Years. This is not to denigrate it, for its enjoyable ride but it does feel a bit too rose tinted at times, driven along by the various philosophies by which Forrest lives his life.

My momma always said, "Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

Perhaps as the antithesis of his care free life is the hard living endured by his childhood sweetheart Jenny. Everywhere Forrest lands on his feet, Jenny trips up. After a sexually abusive childhood, and a lifetime of being treated badly by lovers, employers and educators, she falls into the various drug crazes of the era. There is a theory in fact that the film is perhaps the most overtly right wing piece of mainstream cinema ever produced. The care free spirit and folk musician, leads a life of dissolution and succumbs to the AIDS virus, while the war hero, chaste living southerner becomes a millionaire. Draw your own conclusions.
All in all, this is a technically brilliant piece of film-making, with an enjoyable storyline that you can't help but be enchanted by, in my opinion. Led by a fine turn from Hanks, there is some great supporting work from Robin Wright and Gary Sinise. An enjoyable film that won 6 Oscars on its release in 1994, it is well worth a second look.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Flick of The Day: Dog Day Afternoon

The truth is something which Hollywood has a difficult relationship with. How often have you seen "Based on a true story" or the decidedly more vague "Based on real events" only to find out that reality is a different story entirely. Today's flick of the day then is a rare thing, a Hollywood picture that is a true story that occurred on a Summer afternoon in August 1972 in Brooklyn.
On a sunny afternoon just before closing time, three men enter a branch of the Chase Manhattan in Brooklyn, New York. They are there to rob the bank, each for different reasons. They are led by Sonny, a manic Al Pacino as a desperate loser trying to raise money for his lover's sex change operation and Sal, played by the brilliant John Cazale. What was meant to be a quick job quickly goes awry and within the hour, the bank is surrounded by hundreds of police, TV cameras and crowds of onlookers. The police negotiator is the hapless Moretti played by Charles Durning. Of course it soon descends into a circus, and a panicked Sonny requests a plane and plots their escape. However, it is apparent that the end is nigh when the FBI, led by the cold Agent Sheldon, take over the negotiations.
Directed by Sydney Lumet, whose work we have seen before here on The Daily Flick with The Verdict and The Pawnbroker, this film is a small triumph. By remaining true to the real life story, it gives the film a documentary feel which is heightened by the use of long angles from TV cameras and helicopter footage. As the emotional heart of the film, Al Pacino carries a weight on his shoulders but he delivers in style. His characterisation of Sonny is filled with pathos and a healthy dose of reality. His performance carries the film but is ably supported by Cazale, an actor whose filmography though only 5 films long reads like a list of the great film's of the 1970s. 
How close to reality is the film? Well without giving too much away in terms of plot, it keeps the basic premise of the story but changes events slightly to aid in the telling. The character of Sonny, was based on John Wojtowicz, and after using the funds he received from selling his story to pay for his lover's sex change died of cancer in 2006.

Sonny: Kiss me. 
Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti: What? 
Sonny: Kiss me. When I'm being fucked, I like to get kissed a lot.

The real genius of the film is managing to portray the lunacy of the situation without downplaying the seriousness of it. This is no romantic tale, neither side cover themselves in glory. The thieves appear to have no clue how much trouble they are in while the police seem hell bent on ending the siege in a hail of gunfire.
One of the classic films of a great decade for cinema, Dog Day Afternoon is led by a bravura performance from Al Pacino as a classic antihero. The film makes great use of the location shooting and like so many films of the period examines contemporary issues of race, sexuality and crime while still providing an intelligent, entertaining film. All in all, a film that has to be seen.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

One of the unfortunate traits of the film industry is that eventually every film, the great and the good and the genuinely mediocre will get remade with John Travolta playing a prominent role. Today's flick of the day is another fine example of this trend. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a taut 1972 thriller was remade in 2009 by Tony Scott in an infinitely inferior version.
On a quiet afternoon in New York City, four men take control of a New York Subway train, Pelham 123 packed with commuters. Led by Mr Blue, icily played by Robert Shaw, they demand payment of $1m  in an hour or they will start killing passengers. On the other end of the radio is Transit Cop Garber, played by Walther Matthau. He has to stop the hijackers from following through while the money is raised and keeping the more aggressive members of the police in check.

Mr. Blue: Ladies and gentlemen, it might interest you to know that the City of New York has agreed to pay for your release. 
[Hostages cheer] 
Old Man: Excuse me, sir. Do you mind telling me how much you're getting? 
Mr. Blue: What's it to you, sir? 
Old Man: A person likes to know his worth. 
Mr. Blue: One million dollars. 
Old Man: That's not so good.

This film was the box office popcorn flick of its day, a simple story told well with two strong performances from Matthau and Shaw. It is interesting to compare the choice of actor with the remake for it is the strongest reason why a remake was unnecessary. Robert Shaw was always an actor of substance, in a career cut short by his untimely death at aged 51, he played a host of stellar roles. In the remake, his role is played by John Travolta. Not much one can really add to that. Apart from the cast, the other strength of the film is the shooting on location in New York. The city becomes an additional character to the plot. Add this to a script that cleverly ratchets up the tension to a grand finale, and you have a fine action picture.

Mr. Blue: Now, then, ladies and gentlemen, do you see this gun? It fires 750 rounds of 9-millimeter ammunition per minute. In other words, if all of you simultaneously were to rush me, not a single one of you would get any closer than you are right now. I do hope I've made myself understood.

Directed by Joseph Sargent from a source novel, the film really catches the zeitgeist of 1970's New York, a city with a host of problems having almost gone bankrupt. The various commuters that populate the film act as a great cross section of New York society. Sargent was mainly a TV director, and the craft honed on the small screen such as his efficient use of an ensemble cast shines through.
All in all, a fine film and a great example of an early 70's blockbuster. Driven by strong performances from Robert Shaw and Walther Matthau and an action filled script, this is well worth a second look.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Flick of The Day: Planes, Trains & Automobiles

We are big fans of the work of John Hughes here at The Daily Flick, having reviewed Home Alone around Christmastime, for he is one of the great comedy writers of the last 30 years in Hollywood, producing some of the best loved films in this genre. Perhaps his best work is the anarchic Planes, Trains & Automobiles, today's flick of the day and a film that is still comedic gold nearly 25 years after is first release.
Starring Steve Martin and John Candy as a pair of mismatched travellers who are thrust together trying to get home for the Holidays. Martin is Neal Page, a stiff advertising executive trying to get from New York to Chicago when he is forced to travel with Del Griffith, played by Candy, after a series of unfortunate events. A more unlikely duo you could not hope to meet. Candy is the kind of person you hope never to meet, loud and obnoxious in a harmless way, he drives Martin to distraction throughout as the pair try any means to get home as various mishaps befall them. 
The real high point of this film is the interaction between Candy and Martin, both on top form, they play off each other throughout, one always acting as the straight man for the other. They inhabit the roles to the extent that they become indistinguishable from their characters. It has to be said, they are aided by a great script, one of the best comedies put to paper of all time. There are numerous quotable scenes.

Car Rental Agent: [cheerfully] Welcome to Marathon, may I help you? 
Neal: Yes. 
Car Rental Agent: How may I help you? 
Neal: You can start by wiping that fucking dumb-ass smile off your rosey, fucking, cheeks! And you can give me a fucking automobile: a fucking Datsun, a fucking Toyota, a fucking Mustang, a fucking Buick! Four fucking wheels and a seat! 
Car Rental Agent: I really don't care for the way you're speaking to me. 
Neal: And I really don't care for the way your company left me in the middle of fucking nowhere with fucking keys to a fucking car that isn't fucking there. And I really didn't care to fucking walk, down a fucking highway, and across a fucking runway to get back here to have you smile in my fucking face. I want a fucking car RIGHT FUCKING NOW! 
Car Rental Agent: May I see your rental agreement? 
Neal: I threw it away. 
Car Rental Agent: Oh boy. 
Neal: Oh boy, what? 
Car Rental Agent: You're fucked!

Of course, the real gem at the heart of any John Hughes comedy is the heart itself. We can all identify with trying to get home for a Holiday and as we get to know the characters, they begin to grow on each other, despite all their differences. The ending of the film is somewhat poignant but so life affirming that you can't help but fall for it.
This warm hearted and yet absurd humour is the reason John Hughes were so lauded. His work always seemed to carry an underlying message, that in a world that seems to be out to get you if you persevere you will find peace. 

Del: You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I'm an easy target. Yeah, you're right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you... but I don't like to hurt people's feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I'm not changing. I like... I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. 'Cause I'm the real article. What you see is what you get.

Apart from Candy and Martin, the film is populated with the usual Hughes regulars and you will surely recognise a few familiar faces along the way. The secretary from Ferris Bueller? Check! Ferris Bueller's Dad? Check! One half of the old couple from Home Alone? Check!
One of the greatest comedies of all time, this is a film you just have to see if you haven't already done so. Steve Martin and John Candy are as good as they ever were and the script is possibly the best John Hughes ever produced. All in all, a class act.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

John Le Carre has long been the master of the intelligent spy novel, the kind that seems to exist in a separate world from the likes of James Bond. Presenting the world of the cold war spy as a dark, treacherous place with realism at its core, today's flick of the day is one of the best adaptations of Le Carre's work outside of the BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness.
Starring the inimitable Richard Burton in the Oscar nominated role of the ageing tired British operative in Cold War Berlin, Alec Leamas. After losing another agent in a failed operation, Alec is recalled to London for a meeting with "Control", the head of the "Circus". He is to be pulled from field operations, but only for a special purpose, an elaborate plan to cause chaos on the other side by operating as a double agent. In order to make his defection appear plausible, he is stripped of his job, becomes an alcoholic and is imprisoned in a humiliating manner. Before long, the East Germans make contact and Alec switches sides. Like all great stories, all is not as it seems and there are a number of twists in the tale before a thrilling and tragic finale.
The main thrust of this story is that the activities engaged in by Western intelligence agencies can quite often not be squared with the supposed democratic values of their countries. The film is hard hitting and bleak throughout but has a powerful message at its core with Burton's portrayal of a disaffected and burnt out agent carrying the film throughout. 

Alec Leamas: [Yawns] 
Peters: Tired? 
Alec Leamas: Aren't you? 
Peters: No, I didn't have any drink with my supper. 
Alec Leamas: I didn't have any supper with my drink.

Though Ireland and Britain stand in for East Berlin, the film feels authentic throughout, a hallmark of the work of Le Carre. This gritty realism did not transpond to success at the Box Office, but it has meant that the film has stood the test of time unlike so many of its contemporaries.
Indeed the stark black and white photography does build an oppressive mood which is only released in the final scene. The film lives or dies with Burton's portrayal however and he is a rock throughout, never wavering in the belief system that he lives by.

Alec Leamas: What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?

This is one of the finest spy movies of all time, led by a grandstanding performance, and a realistic portrayal of a profession. This is a genuine must see for any fan of the genre.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Great Escape

Some subjects and events in history have been explored so many times in various guises throughout the history of cinema, that one would imagine that there is nothing more that could be added by yet another film on the topic. The Second World War is surely one such topic, having been a staple of Hollywood from its inception to at least the mid 1960's followed by a mini-revival in the 90's. There are too many fine films on the War to list here but some highlights would include The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, and today's flick of the day, The Great Escape.
From director John Sturges, this is one of the classics of the genre. With an ensemble cast of some of the biggest actors of the day, this is an old school adventure tale of the highest order. The Germans as is their wont have spent a small fortune capturing various allied prisoners of war and irritated at their continuous attempts to escape decides to dump all the bad eggs in one basket, from which there will be no escape. There is the Americans; Steve McQueen as a pilot with a penchant for motorcycle stunts and a bit of a rebel and James Garner as a man who can acquire things inside the prison. The British; led by Richard Attenborough, a gentleman with a steely resolve. An Australian, played by James Coburn and a Pole played by Charles Bronson who excels in digging tunnels. Together they plot an escape by digging three tunnels out of the camp. The film is an action packed adventure culminating in  an attempted mass escape.
Treated with contempt by critics upon its release, it is only in recent years that the film has been reappraised as the classic it is. From the motorcycle stunts attempted by McQueen which had never been seen on the big screen before then to the groundbreaking way in which it manages to handle a fundamentally tragic tale with warmth and a good deal of humour, this was a far superior film to others of its era like The Battle of the Bulge or The Guns of Navarone. It has one of the great ensemble casts in terms of male actors of the era, including a cultural icon in perhaps his most iconic role, Steve McQueen. This is not to mention the fantastic work by less starry names of British cinema like Donald Pleasence and David McCallum. This is a film with an emphasis on action rather than dialogue but there are some memorable quotable lines in there.

Sedgwick: Danny, do you speak Russian? 
Danny: A little, but only one sentence. 
Sedgwick: Well, let me have it, mate. 
Danny: Ya vas lyublyu. 
Sedgwick: Ya ya vas... 
Danny: Lyublyu. 
Sedgwick: Lyubliu? Ya vas lyubliu. Ya vas lyublyu. What's it mean? 
Danny: I love you. 
Sedgwick: Love you. What bloody good is that? 
Danny: I don't know, I wasn't going to use it myself.

Based on a true account from a former POW, the film amends a few details but is largely historically accurate apart from increasing the importance of the American involvement which is no surprise in an American film. If there is one criticism of the film, coming in at nearly 3 hours, it does feel overlong. That said, a rainy afternoon can be easily batted away by catching this on TV. A classic adventure film with a great ensemble cast, this is well worth a look.

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