Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Flick of The Day: Too Big To Fail

Finance is not something that ordinarily makes for interesting viewing. Oliver Stone's Wall Street was very much the exception that proved the rule. Indeed the sequel proved this beyond any doubt. However the crisis which engulfed the global economy in 2008 is to good a tale not to make it to the screen. Based on Andrew Ross Sorkin's bestseller of the same name, today's flick of the day is the best attempt thus far to tell that story.
Directed by Oscar winner Curtis Hanson, whose LA Confidential we reviewed recently, the film focuses on the short few months from the failure of American giant Bear Stearns to the collapse of another banking giant Lehman Brothers as seen through the eyes of the men who experienced those heady days. Hank Paulson, the US Treasury Secretary is played by William Hurt, just one of a star studded cast including Paul Giamatti as Chairman of the Fed Ben Bernanke, James Woods as a maniacal version of the head of Lehman Brothers Dick Fuld. The cast is rounded out by the solid Topher Grace, Billy Crudup, Bill Pullman and Cynthia Nixon. The film manages to make what is a dry topic entertaining and tension filled as the clock counts down to oblivion. The leads are well cast even if it is a stretch to imagine Giamatti as Ben Bernanke. 
The real strength of the film is managing to tell its story without oversimplifying the facts. The decisions made in those few months will have repercussions for years to come. If there is one criticism it is the constant focus on New York ignoring the events in London and Asia which were well covered in Sorkin's book.

Henry Paulson: The Fed can lend to non banks under unusual and exigent circumstances, we're thinking of taking over 80% of the company. 
Jim Wilkinson: Hank we can't! This morning we were lecturing the entire country on morale hazard. 
Henry Paulson: AIG has collateral, they have assets, Lehman didn't, we couldn't lend into a hole, its not the same story! 
Jim Wilkinson: Nobody is going to care, its another bailout, with no legislation, the Hill is gonna go crazy, the country is gonna go crazy. 
Henry Paulson: The plane we flew in on this morning leased from AIG, construction downtown AIG, life insurance 81 million policies with a face value of 1.9 trillion. Billions of dollars in teachers pensions, you want to big to fail here it is! You got a better idea -the suggestion box is wide open!

Another fine production from HBO Films, it is a testament to the quality of that channel's output that Sorkin's book was adapted  there rather then in a large Hollywood studio.
Overall this is a worthy account of a very interesting period in modern history told well by a talented film-maker. Hanson makes good use of an equally talented cast with William Hurt particularly strong as Paulson. Well worth a look for anyone still trying to comprehend the events of those days and has much to offer even those with an interest in the topic.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Flick of The Day: Chinatown

So here we are, my favourite film of all time. Perfection is a strong word but in terms of cinema, today's flick of the day is as close to  perfection as is possible in a full length feature in the modern era. A towering central performance, a director on top form and a legendary screenwriter, this film is the sum of its parts. A dark and disturbing journey into life and corruption in sun drenched 1930's Los Angeles. Forget it Jake, It's Chinatown.
Jake Gittes, a superb Jack Nicholson, is a private eye who specialises in catching out cheating spouses. A former cop, he has a sharp eye and a quick tongue. One day he is hired by Evelyn Mulwray to follow her husband Holles, whom she suspects of infidelity. Holles is Chief Engineer in the Water department. As Jake follows Holles around, he is intrigued to find him taking unexplained trips to various reservoirs and water tables. However, when he photographs Holles in the company of a young girl, he figures his job is done. However it quickly becomes apparent that Jake is in over his head when the real Mrs Mulwray, played by Faye Dunaway turns up and had nothing to do with hiring Jake and Holles turns up dead. Going against his own gut, he decides he has to get to the bottom of a tangled web involving shady land deals, corrupt bureaucracy, orange farmers and Evelyn's father, an ageing land baron called Noah Cross, played by the incomparable John Huston. A dark and shocking finale ensues, in which Jake is forced to fight against forces he is powerless to stop and has to confront his own past in Chinatown.
A powerful film even today, the real crux of its success is to marry the kind of classic screen noir of the 1930's and 40's with a pessimistic critique of capitalist and bureaucratic structures that began to seep into American cinema in the post Watergate 70's. A great script from Robert Towne marries these grand themes with a story of corruption and family deceit that is as old as Oedipus. It is packed with great quotable lines.

Jake Gittes: Mulvihill! What are you doing here? 
Mulvihill: They shut my water off. What's it to you? 
Jake Gittes: How'd you find out about it? You don't drink it; you don't take a bath in it... They wrote you a letter. But then you have to be able to read.

It would be a shame if this script were wasted on ropy acting and lazy direction. Thankfully, then these elements are equally strong. Nicholson gives a strong performance in a role that cemented his place as a star. Hollywood legend John Huston is equally adept as the malevolent Noah Crosss and his scenes with Nicholson are a treat. Roman Polanksi's direction is even paced and draws the best out of the cast and the script. Almost flawless.
The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards on its release in 1974, winning just the one for Robert Towne's brilliant script having had the misfortune of being made in the same year as The Godfather Part II. It's reputation has only grown in the intervening years, becoming something of a mythic beast such is the reputation of the likes of Towne, Polanski and Nicholson in terms of the 70's New Hollywood movement. It even spawned a vastly inferior sequel in 1990, The Two Jakes.

Jake Gittes: In Chinatown. 
Evelyn Mulwray: What were you doing there? 
Jake Gittes: Working for the District Attorney. 
Evelyn Mulwray: Doing what? 
Jake Gittes: As little as possible. 
Evelyn Mulwray: The District Attorney gives his men advice like that? 
Jake Gittes: They do in Chinatown.

The film is relentlessly cynical in its outlook, something that is at the heart of film noir but in this case updated for a modern audience. This alone would have made the film memorable but the combination of this with a great story and the aforementioned talents of Nicholson et al raise this to another level.
Well, what else is there to say? This really is my favourite film of all time. It is as good as it gets on all fronts and really a must see for anyone with an interest in great cinema. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Flick of The Day: Spy Game

The cold war in general and espionage in particular has been a well that many film-makers have gone to over the years. It is in short a well travelled genre however very few have tried to chart the machinations and manoeuvrings of a life spent in the service of the CIA during this period. Today's flick of the day, Spy Game does so through the eyes of two career spies, who were once friends but now estranged.
Set in 1991, the film opens with Nathan Muir, played with unselfconscious cool by Robert Redford, on his last day in the Agency. He is alerted that an old colleague who he has not spoken to for years, Tom Bishop ably played by Brad Pitt, has gone rogue and been captured while trying to break somebody out of a Chinese prison. It quickly becomes apparent that the Agency wish to disassociate themselves from Tom and leave him to rot. Nathan is brought in to give the top brass a run through of Tom's career. Told in flashbacks, the story begins in Vietnam before the final pull out in 1975 and details how Nathan recruited him before moving onto their escapades in the eastern bloc, Berlin and Beirut. In a two hour running time, it packs in a hell of a lot of assassinations  double crosses and political manoeuvring. By the end, Nathan realises he has to act to save his old friend in a poignant finale.
In the hands of director Tony Scott, this is an overly flashy film and at times, it gets in the way of what is a great story. There is enough material here for a better director to fashion a true classic rather then the merely engrossing thriller it is. There is a wonderful feeling of authenticity and a great script really gives the film an air of living history.

Tom Bishop: All right, so what else? What else do I need to know? 
Nathan Muir: Put away some money so you can die someplace warm and don't ever touch it. Not for anyone, ever. 
Tom Bishop: Okay, is that it? 
Nathan Muir: Don't *ever* risk your life for an asset. If it comes down to you or them... send flowers.

That said, this is a well crafted film with much to enjoy. Redford gives a performance better then anything he has delivered in years and Pitt is well cast as the young idealist who gradually gets dragged into the web of international espionage.
If anything, the film doesn't make enough use of some of the talent at its disposal. The likes of Charlotte Rampling and Omid Djalili pop up in blink and you will miss it roles as we move at pace from the Jungles of North Vietnam to the streets of 70's Berlin and the chaos of the war in Beirut. There appears to be genuine chemistry between Pitt and Redford and this is important because this relationship is the crux of the entire film. Is Nathan willing to put himself on the line to save an old friend?
Overall, it is an enjoyable and thoughtful walk through some of the darker days of the cold war. Pitt and Redford give strong performances and the film feels short enough at just over two hours. While the various music video stylings of Tony Scott can grate at times, overall it is well put together. An engrossing well made thriller, worth a look.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Flick of The Day: Paul

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have a reputation producing some of the best British comedy of the past decade, from the influential and short lived TV series Spaced  to the wonderful zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead, which launched them to stardom, propelling Pegg in particular to the Hollywood big time with roles in Mission Impossible III and Star Trek. The duo had not worked together since 2007's Hot Fuzz until the eagerly awaited arrival of today's flick of the day, Paul.
Graeme played by Pegg and Clive played by Frost are two British sci-fi geeks on the holiday of a lifetime in the US. They visit the world famous Comic-Con in San Diego before launching into a cross country road trip to visit various sites of supposed UFO contact such as Area-51 and Roswell in an RV. In short then, they are  a particularly unworldly duo. Of course, there is great humour in the various pop culture references and geek nostalgia  a regular feature in their past collaborations. Of course, the road trip doesn't go to plan as they have their very own close encounter on a lonely desert road with a foul mouthed Alien by the name of Paul voiced by Seth Rogen. Paul is on the run from the American government in the form of Agent Zoil played by the always entertaining Jason Bateman. Paul is entertaining and endearing and it is not long before his new friends are enlisted to help him return home as they try and outwit government agents, backward rednecks and a fire and brimstone preacher. Along the way there are some great gags and a voice cameo from a very famous director.
The real enjoyable aspect of this film are the numerous pop culture and film references that give it a warm charm that is impossible to resist. Pegg and Frost are as usual perfect as the amiable dorks and in Paul, they have created one of the great screen aliens. Rogen was a good choice as the voice artist, giving Paul a familiarity and wonderfully profane aspect. While not as laugh out loud funny as some of their previous efforts, there are some great one liners.

Graeme Willy: You are an alien! 
Paul: To you I am, yes. 
Graeme Willy: Are you gonna probe us? 
Paul: *Why* does everyone always assume that? What am I doing? Am I harvesting farts? How much can I learn from an ass?

They have succeeded in maintaining their usual brand of humour while also adding a warm sweet natured comedy that has a lot of heart. This is a new strong to the Pegg/Frost bow and we can only hope that they push on from here.
All in all, this is a very enjoyable film if nothing ground breaking. There is a lot to be said for a film that is short, sweet and funny. So often Hollywood seems incapable of delivering this with each new Summer delivering a new batch of turgid comic book adaptations. Be thankful then for the small mercies of Paul, charming and slight though it may be. I await the next Simon Pegg and Nick Frost collaboration.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Very often great art is not recognised as such until long after the artist has passed on. There are innumerable tales of the great and good that end with "and he died penniless". Thankfully cinema is one of those forms where your art will live on to be remembered for good or ill. Perhaps Michael Bay should remember this next time he decides to inflict a Transformers film on an unsuspecting public. Director of today's flick of the day, Sergio Leone is one whose reputation has only grown since his death in 1989, perhaps due to the small body of work he left behind, each of which is a true classic. From his "Man With No Name" trilogy which concluded with today's flick to his Mexican revolution epic A Fistful of Dynamite which we previously reviewed here to his final film, the gigantic Once Upon a Time in America, his work was bold, epic and entertaining.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is the final and best instalment of Leone's first foray into the Western genre. As with the previous films A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, Clint Eastwood is once again the mysterious enigmatic stranger. As with each of Leone's film's, it is bigger and grander then the last. Eastwood is the good of the title and along with Eli Wallach as the loudmouth and ugly Tuco and the irredeemably bad Lee Van Cleef are in search of stolen Confederate gold during the ugly depths of the Civil War. In an epic journey across country, they cheat and double cross each other before a final showdown at a graveyard, justly lauded as one of the great finales in modern cinema. 
Each film Leone directed had a habit of being grander and more epic in scale then his previous efforts and as a time went on took longer to create. He spent at least a decade working on his final film and was rumoured to be developing a film based around Stalingrad, perhaps too large a canvas for any director. This need for grandeur is present in today's film with a number of large-scale set pieces that give the film a much more substantial feel then previous efforts including an extended sequence at a civil war battle taking place on either side of a river, with a network of trenches and huge numbers of extras, it is on a scale that even today has the power to make an audience go "Wow".
Of course spectacle is nothing without a great story and actors to carry it. Leone then is very lucky to have Eastwood in perhaps his most iconic role outside of Dirty Harry and perfect as the taciturn loner that the audience immediately identifies with. It helps of course that Wallach and Van Cleef offer such great foils, with Van Cleef's Angel Eyes one of the great screen villains. 

Blondie: [counting Angel Eyes' men] One, two, three, four, five, and six. Six, the perfect number.   Angel Eyes: I thought three was the perfect number. 
Blondie: I've got six more bullets in my gun.

The film is violent, even by today's standards but the dry wit of Eastwood's Blondie and the oafishness of Wallach's Tuco leaven proceedings and give the violence a dark humour which I believe is probably at the root of its continued popularity nearly 45 years after its release.
Leone is one of the all time greats and this is one of his best work's. Backed by a fine cast and another memorable Ennio Morricone score, it is dark, humorous and action filled adventure in an old west that never really existed except for in the mind of a group of gifted Italian film-makers. A great film.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Blues Brothers

I loathe musicals. All that needless singing to advance the plot drives over the edge. There have been legions of Broadway shows that have been adapted for the screen down through the years and I struggle to find a single positive thing  to say. They all seem do overly serious and taken with themselves. However, for a combination of music and performance with a healthy dose of comedy, I must heartily recommend The Blues Brothers as today's flick of the day.
Starring the late great John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the eponymous brothers Jake and Elwood, this film is a modern classic from director John Landis. The film opens as Jake is released from prison. Together the two are soon on a "mission from god" in the form of the Nun in charge of their childhood orphanage, which needs $5,000 to stay open. In an attempt to get their band back together and raise the funds, they embark on a madcap cross country trek pursued by State Troopers, Neo Nazis and a murderous Carrie Fisher. Along the way they bump into some legends of blues and soul music including Cab Calloway, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles
The plot is frail to say the least but its carried through by some very energetic musical numbers and by the natural charm of the leading men. John Belushi was never cooler then in this role and it acts as a great reminder of the raw talent that was snuffed out far too young. The other major selling point is the fantastically choreographed car chases with one in particular destroying an entire shopping mall. 

Elwood: Illinois Nazis. 
Jake: I hate Illinois Nazis.

The zany humour at the heart of all John Landis scripts has aged well and any dull moments are forgotten as the film roars to a spectacular finale.
All in all, this is a very enjoyable film which just about carries itself over its 130 minute running time. The various cameo appearances by the great and good of soul and rhythm-and-blues are entertaining and give the film some much needed authenticity. It's funny, lively and one of the few film to come out of Saturday Night Live which has stood the test of time. Well worth a look.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Daily Flick Recommendation...

A former flick of the day and one of the great films of the 1980s, Cutter's Way has been given a new cinema release at the IFI. Check out our review here and book tickets here. I urge you to see it

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Flick of The Day: Senna

The documentary film has long been a difficult cinemagoer. A trip to the cinema is by definition a wish to be entertained not lectured. However in recent years, thanks to a gaggle of truly superb documentaries such as American: The Bill Hicks Story, Touching the Void and Anvil, a documentary is now a seriously entertaining and compelling proposition. Today's flick of the day is a recent arrival in cinemas that delivers on all counts, Senna.
Told by the man himself in his own words, Senna is the life story of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula 1 racing driver who came from Brazil and conquered the world of Motorsport, winning 3 world titles before his life was tragically cut short in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. The film begins as Senna moves to Europe for the first time in 1978 as Go-Kart champion in search of a bigger stage. Before long he is in the highest form of the sport, Formula 1, joining the struggling Toleman team in 1984. It quickly becomes apparent that Ayrton is a special talent, in an early race at Monaco he guides his car to second place in the rain and is hot on the heels of the leader and soon to be nemesis Alain Prost when the race is stopped at Prost's behest because of the rain. 
The relationship between the two is central to the film. Initially grudgingly respectful, this rapidly spirals into enmity when the two becomes team mates for Mclaren in 1988. At 1989 Japanese Grand Prix, Prost drives Senna off the circuit knowing it will guarantee him a World title before Senna returns the favour at the same Grand Prix in 1990. Their duelling and bitter rivalry drives the film forward but in truth Prost is not the villain of the piece. This falls to Jean-Marie Balestre, the man in charge of Formula 1 and who at various points seems to favour his countryman Prost much to the irritation of Senna. The level of political chicanery and outright corruption is shocking at times. 
However most shocking of course is the danger that was involved in the sport at this time. With cars going faster and faster on circuits not built for it and safety regulations that are laughably lax, tragedy was inevitable. The film builds to its climax in this vain with the San Marino Grand Prix in May 1994. A cursed weekend, it began with a horrid crash for driver Rubens Barrichello from which he emerges unscathed, before Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger is killed on Saturday. We see Ayrton's reaction to all of this, obviously unsettled he decides to race on Sunday wearing an Austrian flag under his suit in honour of Ratzenberger. As Senna entered the high-speed Tamburello corner on lap 6, the car left the track at high speed, hitting the concrete retaining wall. He was just 34 when he died.
The true strength of the movie is the wealth of footage they make use of, enabling Senna to tell his own story. Almost everything seems to have been documented from drivers briefings prior to races to behind the scenes discussions and shocking footage of the aftermath of crashes. The accident suffered by driver Martin Donnelly is particularly difficult to watch. Not only is everything documented, the various camera men took great care to shoot with an eye for cinematography and it gives even the smallest of a scenes a cinematic feeling. Ultimately, this is not the story of why Senna was a great racing driver but why he was a great man, it is a film that is watchable even by somebody with no interest in the sport.
It is a profoundly moving story all the same. Having battled against the blatant cheating of his main rival and the inane bureaucracy of his sport, to be cut down in his prime by a car that was fatally flawed is a bad end. By the time this occurs, you feel you have the measure of the man and how he lived his life. Director Asif Kapadia has created a compelling and ultimately tragic documentary. You really must see it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Flick of The Day: GoodFellas

The gangster movie has been a cornerstone of cinema since before there was a Hollywood. From early classics like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy in the 1930's to Coppola's The Godfather and Scorsese's Mean Streets in the 70's, it has always been a popular genre. It begs an obvious question, what is the best gangster film of them all? I think the answer to that question is today's flick of the day Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas.
Based on the bestselling book by Nicholas Pileggi, this is the true story of a life in the Mafia. It follows the course of Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, a half Irish half Sicilian who becomes involved with the mob first as an after school job before blossoming into a fully formed gangster, a GoodFella. He falls under the spell of Jimmy Conway, a rising star of the family, played by Robert De Niro and befriends a crazy hot head called Tommy DeVito played by Joe Pesci. Set to a fantastic period soundtrack, the film moves from the early 50's to the 70's to the bitter end of it all in 1980. Together, the three work various scams and heists for local chieftain Paulie Cicero, a star turn from Paul Sorvino. Like all the great stories, this is the story of the rise and fall.
Scorsese has created a work of stunning breadth and ambition. It comes in at nearly 150 minutes and yet breezes by such is the speed and focus of the editing. There are so many high points that they can't be listed from the single continuous take entrance to a nightclub to the snappy quotable dialogue and the vast cast of characters that remain memorable such is the strength of the script.

Henry Hill: You're a pistol, you're really funny. You're really funny. 
Tommy DeVito: What do you mean I'm funny? 
Henry Hill: It's funny, you know. It's a good story, it's funny, you're a funny guy. 
[laughs] 
Tommy DeVito: What do you mean, you mean the way I talk? What? 
Henry Hill: It's just, you know. You're just funny, it's... funny, the way you tell the story and everything. 
Tommy DeVito: [it becomes quiet] Funny how? What's funny about it? 
Anthony Stabile: Tommy no, You got it all wrong. 
Tommy DeVito: Oh, oh, Anthony. He's a big boy, he knows what he said. What did ya say? Funny how? 
Henry Hill: Jus... 
Tommy DeVito: What? 
Henry Hill: Just... ya know... you're funny. 
Tommy DeVito: You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it's me, I'm a little fucked up maybe, but I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I'm here to fuckin' amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny? 
Henry Hill: Just... you know, how you tell the story, what? 
Tommy DeVito: No, no, I don't know, you said it. How do I know? You said I'm funny. How the fuck am I funny, what the fuck is so funny about me? Tell me, tell me what's funny! 
Henry Hill: [long pause] Get the fuck out of here, Tommy! 
Tommy DeVito: [everyone laughs] Ya motherfucker! I almost had him, I almost had him. Ya stuttering prick ya. Frankie, was he shaking? I wonder about you sometimes, Henry. You may fold under questioning.

The point made throughout the film is that the various characters are in the mob because they like it, it is what drives them. Their various flaws, the frankly psychotic Tommy, the kleptomaniac Jimmy and the easily led Henry are what make them successful gangsters.
It is difficult to underestimate the legacy of GoodFellas, much like Scorsese's previous reinvention of the genre in 1973 with Mean Streets. The creator of HBO's The Sopranos even went so far as to say that "Goodfellas is the Koran for me" and cited it as the film which drove him to create his own masterpiece. The film is a triumph on so many levels. It is not just an account of a life in the Mafia, but a morality play. At the beginning, as Henry and Jimmy follow the rules and pay tribute to their leader Paulie, stay away from drug dealing and avoid murder as a last resort, they begin to prosper. However as the decades move on and they become deeply involved in the drug trade and go against Paulie's wishes, events spiral out of control and lead eventually to their downfall.
I don't think there is anything more that can be said really. It is a fantastic film, packed with stand out performances and perhaps Scorsese's best work as a director. If you haven't already seen it, you really should.

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