Sunday, October 30, 2011

Flick of The Day: Akira

When I began writing the Daily Flick almost a year ago, I had two main aims. Firstly, I would attempt to review and recommend a film a day and as anyone who has read the blog will attest, I have been less than successful. Today's film is number 139 if you are interested. My second aim was to try and include as diverse a range of cinema as possible. This has been more successful as I have touched on innumerable genres and style of film making and included as much foreign language cinema as I felt necessary. However, there is one area in which I have been remiss for it is not a genre I am overly familiar with, Japanese Anime. Today's flick of the day is Akira.
A touchstone for the genre and perhaps the most influential example of its breadth, Akira is based on the manga series of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo. In a post apocalyptic Neo Tokyo in the year 2019, a group of young bikers stumble across a government research project. Tetsuo, a disgruntled and oddly independent member of the gang becomes imbued with strange telekinetic powers of an insidious nature. These powers are linked to the government project centred on a being called Akira. As the military pursue Tetsuo and the energy source begins to take him over, we learn the dark secret at the heart of it and of the reconstruction of Japan after the last war.
Darkly atmospheric and highly stylised, Akira is a joy to watch with the stunningly rendered skyline of Neo Tokyo dominating many scenes and a level of detail in the animation not normally seen in anime of this time. The storyline is at times overly complex and perhaps too overwrought for an adult audience to truly engage with it. This not the point however, let the story flow over you and indulge yourself in the bright colours and textures of the animation. The first fully realised anime picture with long drawn out scenes and lip synced dialogue in the original Japanese version, for anyone with even a passing interest in the genre, it is a real must see. For those with little or no knowledge of the subject, it is a fine jumping off point. 
One of the main critiques of the film would be its attempt to condense a six volume comic with over 2,000 pages into a two hour film. This is perhaps the reason for the dense plotting which can be difficult to follow. Perhaps the film deserves credit for attempting to tell such a lengthy story but it doesn't quite manage it. It is perhaps telling that the long rumoured and always obligatory Pointless American Live Action Remake or P.A.L.A.R for short is to be split into two films.
All in all, this is an excellent example of Japanese anime and  many Western fans initiation to the genre.Its success upon release in 1988 created a market for anime in the West that has only grown since then. The works of artists like Miyazaki and Otomo has gradually become more well known since with Miyazaki's Spirited Away winning the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2002. Even for those with little or no knowledge of anime like myself, there is much to enjoy. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Flick of The Day: Mystery, Alaska

Sport is one of those subjects which is perfectly suited to the big screen, full of natural drama and high and lows which lend themselves to the cinematic arts. Some sports are of course more suited then others with Boxing being the most overly mined since the days of silent cinema. As noted in our review of When Saturday Comes, a good rule of thumb is that the less sporting action on screen, the better the film works as a piece of drama or comedy. The most successful sporting dramas have been those which dealt with more obscure sports or aspects of sport such as Chariots of Fire, Field of Dreams and This Sporting Life. In this vein then, is this obscure enough ice hockey drama, Mystery Alaska, which never received a cinematic release on this side of the bond and yet is strangely compelling and today's flick of the day.
Starring Russell Crowe, as a Sheriff in a small town in Alaska devoted to its ice hockey team above all other considerations. Every Saturday, they play off against each other in their "Saturday Game". After 13 years on the team, Crowe's John Biebe is dropped in favour of a younger player however after a magazine article highlights their prowess and leads to a challenge match against the much vaunted New York Rangers, John is called back to coach the team and defend the town's honour. John's fellow townsfolk are rounded out by a fine supporting cast including the always entertaining Colm Meaney as the Mayor and a remarkably restrained Burt Reynolds as the Judge. 
While by no means a classic, there is much to enjoy here with some fine turns from the ensemble cast. This is perhaps the real flaw of the film, there are so many characters and treads to the storyline that we never really get to see anyone in much detail. There is a brief interlude about Meaney's philandering wife, another section with a player on trial, Crowe's worries about his wife's wandering eye, all too brief. However the film is held together by the classic tale of the underdog. It's David v  Goliath on a frozen pond.

Donna Biebe: Every ex-player turned coach says that they prefer coaching over playing. Why would they all say that?
John Biebe: Because they can't play.

All in all, the film makes the best of what it has going for it. A fine cast make the best of a limited script with Crowe being his reliable action man self and Meaney batting it straight as the Mayor. Shot on location in Alaska, there is some fine scenery on show and while the film is guilty of the usual Hollywood portrayal of small towns, it is at least a flattering one rather than some Deliverance parody. And yes that is Mike Myers in a blink and you will miss it cameo role and yes Little Richard does sing the national anthem. Draw your own conclusions.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Flick of The Day: Sideways

Paul Giamatti is perhaps my favourite actor working in American cinema today. From small roles in blockbusters to the quirky star of independent films like American Splendor, he has built a reputation as talented actor with a no nonsense attitude to work. This has seen him work with some of the best and the worst of Hollywood, from George Clooney to Martin Lawrence, Today's flick of the day is one of his best performances, Alexander Payne's Sideways.
Failed novelist Miles, played by Giamatti, is a long suffering friend of Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church an equally failed TV actor. Jack is getting married on Saturday and for his final week as a batchelor, Miles is taking him on a trip around Californian wine country. Both have different motivations for going on the trip with a depressed Miles looking to relax and Jack more concerned with sowing those last few oats. Before long they meet two interesting new women, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. As the week progresses, they have to reassess their own relationship and their lives as they look toward the oncoming train of middle age.
For a film about something generally considered as a downer topic, dealing with growing up and old, this is a very funny film at times. This is largely because of the fine chemistry between the leads. Giamatti brings a dark manic streak to Miles, and you can sense that a breakdown is only ever just below the surface. Haden Church is the perfect foil as the unbelievably crass and conniving Jack. 

Jack: If they want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot. 
Miles Raymond: No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!

There is something about sad sack characters that brings out the best in Giamatti as an actor. Who could forget his equally entertaining portrayal of cartoonist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor?
Like so many of Alexander Payne's films, it is held together by some great dialogue which draws such performances from the cast. Madsen and Oh are no less interesting for being out of the films spotlight, in a particularly fine scene they each explain their love of wine and how it has shaped their life.

" I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your '61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline."

The rise and fall of a good wine is surely a metaphor for life itself with its peaks and troughs. If there is another important character in the film, it is the Californian countryside. The vineyard lined roads and the sun dappled fields are at the heart of the story as these people enjoy one last week of fun in this modern Eden.
A really lovely film, it is a fine portrayal of male friendship and of the perils of growing old or in Jack's case of never growing up in the first place. It is worth the price of admission for the early morning burglary scene alone. It is moving at times and you would have to have a hard heart not to fall for the characters. Each actor went on to bigger things and it was very much a stepping stone movie. Haden Church and Madsen were both nominated for Oscars and Sandra Oh became a TV star with Greys Anatomy. All in all, a film you just have to see.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Flick of The Day: Midnight In Paris

The Daily Flick is a big fan of Woody Allen having previously reviewed three of his classics Hannah & Her Sisters, Radio Days and Manhattan. It would be fair to say that the 70's and 80's were Allen's creative heyday before he entered a largely barren period in the 90's. Thankfully, the last few years have seen a return to form with 2005's London set Match Point being followed by a string of successes like Vicky Christina Barcelona, Whatever Works, and today's flick of the day and his biggest hit ever, Midnight in Paris.
Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams are a young couple tagging along on a business trip in Paris with McAdams parents. Wilson is Gil, a bored Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of moving to Paris to be a novelist and McAdams is his vacuous fiancĂ©e Inez. Inez has no time for Gil's fantasy of living in Paris in the 1920's, an era he feels is Paris at its best. Her parents are equally disapproving, a fine waspish turn from Mimi Kennedy as her Mother and a hilariously right wing Kurt Fuller as her father. While sightseeing they bump into some of Inez friends including Michael Sheen as a boorish and pedantic academic who delights in taking pot-shots at Gil while talking at length. Gil manages to extricate himself from this group and walk the streets of Paris as night falls. As the clock strikes midnight, a 1920's car pulls up and he is beckoned inside by the revellers. Much to his surprise it is F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda and they take him on a tour of the bohemian nightspots of 1920's Paris. Along the way he meets Hemingway and Cole Porter and before the night is out has a promise from Hemingway to have Gertrude Stein played by the always watchable Kathy Bates read his novel. Gil begins to spend each night wandering Paris until at midnight he is dragged off to his fantasy much to the displeasure of Inez. He soon meets Picasso and Salvador Dali and his quirky friends, while the music plays and the night is young. He meets and gradually falls for a beautiful young woman played by Marion Cotillard. Soon he is faced with the choice of staying in his fantasy or coming back to reality.
The really enjoyable part of this film is, apart from the many fine performances, is the nostalgia for Paris in the 1920's. The city of light is lit up by the stars of the jazz age like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Cole Porter. They are as witty and charming as you had hoped and Owen Wilson's fumbling naturalness carries him along. You can just sit there and let this wash over you and yet if anything the heart of the story is a warning about the perils of too much nostalgia. As Wilson's Gil gets dragged into his favourite period at the expense of his present, it becomes apparent that people are always harking back to a golden age. Marion Cotillard's Adriana longs for the Paris of the 1890's, La Belle Epoque while Gauguin and Degas long for the Renaissance. The lesson is that people long for the past to escape their present.
There is much to admire here and it is surely one of Allen's funniest comedies in years with a number of knowing references to his homeland of today,

Gil: I would like you to read my novel and get your opinion. 
Ernest Hemingway: I hate it. 
Gil: You haven't even read it yet. 
Ernest Hemingway: If it's bad, I'll hate it. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer.

Overall, it is the film's feel good atmosphere that carries it along,the historical figures welcome Gil with open arms. It is always a pleasure to see Paris on screen and even the message of the film is told subtly and gently.
In conclusion then, its a fine film, perhaps Woody Allen's best in many a year. A bright and funny script leads you into the romance of Paris and there are some fine turns from Wilson, Cotillard and Kathy Bates. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Flick of The Day: V for Vendetta

English writer Alan Moore, famed for his work in graphic novels, has seen many of his best works adapted for the screen with disastrous results. It reads like a who's who of awful cinema with From Hell, The League of Extraodinary Gentlemen and Constantine being the worst examples. He has since requested that his name be removed from any such projects and it is a shame that one of the disavowed films include this excellent adaptation and today's flick of the day, V for Vendetta.
Set in a dystopian vision of Britain, in which a fascist like government controls all aspects of society in a manner none to dissimilar to Orwell's 1984. This all seeing totalitarian state abuses its power and crushes all opposition through violence and propaganda led by the evil Chancellor Sutler played by John Hurt. The always reliable Natalie Portman is Evey, a quiet young woman who while trying to evade the secret police stumbles into V, a masked crusader played by Hugo Weaving who in remembrance of the gunpowder plot of Guy Fawkes is determined to bring an end to the reign of terror. Taking Evey under his wing, they plot revenge.
It is always important to remember the context in which a particular work is produced. Alan Moore wrote this tale of authoritarianism in the 1980's when Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her power and the idea of some kind of neo-conservative society was very much a possibility with the average working class British citizen being forced to the margins. Then again, the film itself was produced at a time after 9/11 when the world had become a very dangerous place indeed with the evil cradling of Guantanamo Bay just being spawned in the minds of the public. This context is important because the fear of totalitarianism expressed in the book and the film is so very relevant to today. Director and screenwriter James McTeigue makes numerous references to the real world today. The black bags which undesirables are subjected to is surely a reference to the kind seen in Abu Ghraib and there are also references to a war which brought America to its knees. Whether these references are valid is something for yourself to decide but it was undoubtedly an influence.
These themes aside, it is a very entertaining film just taken at face value. Stephen Rea is excellent as the conflicted detective on the trail of Evey and V while Portman manages the role of Evey with aplomb. The cast are excellent all round and there are some enjoyable action set pieces which build the tension as V seeks to push the nation toward revolution and a grand finale on Guy Fawkes Night.

"So I read that the former United States is so desperate for medical supplies that they have allegedly sent several containers filled with wheat and tobacco. A gesture, they said, of good will. You wanna know what I think? Well, you're listening to my show, so I will assume you do... I think it's high time we let the colonies know what we really think of them. I think its payback time for a little tea party they threw for us a few hundred years ago. I say we go down to those docks tonight and dump that crap where everything from the Ulcered Sphincter of Arse-erica belongs! Who's with me? Who's bloody with me?"

This could so easily have become some po-faced preachy piece about morality and fear in the post 9/11 world but it manages to be both entertaining and thought provoking. The story of how Britain gradually slipped into the grips of the fascistic Norsefire party which is told in flashback  is chillingly possible and will make you think about this possibility if nothing else. A fine story, which is subtly directed and acted by a fine cast. Well worth a look.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Flick of The Day: Drive

Canadian actor Ryan Gosling has carved out a niche for himself over the past few years as the American Indie scene's go-to guy for quirky leading roles, with star making turns in Half Nelson, Lars & The Real Girl and Blue Valentine. His performance as an inner-city teacher struggling with drug addiction in Half Nelson earned him an Oscar nomination. I was then very much looking forward to his latest film, Drive which is today's flick of the day.
The story such as it is revolves around the unnamed Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic who moonlights as getaway driver for hire. He is the quite taciturn type that might have been played by Steve McQueen back in the 1970's. Before you let your mind wander off there to McQueen's classic car chase filled Bullit and wonder about similarities, let me disabuse you of any such notions immediately. This is not that kind of film. Gosling's Driver works for shifty looking Shannon, a crippled businessman with a heart of gold and an eye for it too, played by the seemingly ubiquitous Bryan Cranston. All is going well and profitably until Driver meets and falls for his new neighbour Irene and her son. Irene is a woman with a husband about to get out of jail, ably played by Carey Mulligan. Of course her husband soon returns and all is not well. For reasons known only to himself and the screenwriter, Driver decides to help out this down on his luck husband by acting as his getaway driver. Inevitably things go awry, and Driver falls awry of local hoods Nino and Bernie played by the always reliable Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks. Along the way is a blink and you won't miss her departure cameo by the lovely Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame.
This is where the film begins to go badly awry. It starts well with a great opening sequence, some classic synth tunes and 80's style credits and you could be forgiven for thinking you are in for a treat. It is when Driver begins to get himself in trouble that the film falters. Out of nowhere, the up to this point peaceable Driver becomes mindlessly violent and the director, Nicholas Winding Refn seems to revel in showing it to us in all the gory detail. A head is kicked to a bloody pulp, another explodes in a shotgun blast. Driver is not the only violent man, Bernie played against type by Brooks gets in on the act, with wrists and throats slashed and arterial spray the normal result of almost any confrontation. It is this revelling in the gore which is so misplaced. The director is so focused on showing us the physical effects of the violence that it never shows us any emotion. Think of cinema violence back in the days of the Hays Code when it couldn't be shown directly, yet we still saw its effects and the anguish on a characters face. I have no problem with screen violence for it  represents the world we live in yet I see no point in it being the sole focus of a film to the detriment of the story. Early works from Tarantino such as Reservoir Dogs were violent but it always felt necessary and human. If the slow agonising death of Tim Roth's Mr Orange thought us anything it is that sometimes death is slow and painful but it was never done gratuitously.
Apart from this, its pretty standard B-Movie stuff. The kind of thing you might have caught on a lazy Saturday afternoon back in the day. It is a strikingly shot film with some gorgeous shots of a night time Los Angeles and there is an excellent score to carry the piece through. At times, it was the only thing keeping me interested.

Driver: If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what. I don't sit in while you're running it down; I don't carry a gun... I drive.

Gosling carries his role well but he isn't given a whole lot to work with, dialogue wise he says very little over the course of the film and it is to his credit that he manages to convey emotion and mood silently. His relationship with Irene's son is compelling. Overall the cast are excellent, its just not as good  a film as it thinks it is and that's a shame.
My only other criticism would be that for a film which promises so much in terms of its title and smashing trailer, it delivers precious little in terms of car chases or action driving. Oh sure, Driver drives about the city looking stern but we never really see him take on all these getaway jobs.
All in all, this is a slick film with a lot of style from the opening credits to the final shot and Refn is a director with an eye for framing a shot, but there is no real heart here. I left the cinema disappointed but there you go, such is life. Draw your own conclusions.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Flick of The Day: Some Kind of Monster

Music documentaries can be a bland affair. So many of the recent offerings feel more like extended promotions for the artist involved with very few getting to the heart of the creative process or of the artists career. This is largely due to the fact that modern artists are smart enough or indeed their management are smart enough to ensure that they are not see in their true guise,  no matter how childishly egotistic it may be. Gone are the days of watching Mick Jagger standing very still as the violence erupts around him at Altamount in the Maysles brothers Gimme Shelter or the gradual unravelling of Bob Dylan: Folk Hero in D.A Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. It is a delight then to announce that American metal band Metallica are just about gormless enough to allow the camera's access to their inner workings during a particularly difficult period. For comedy value alone, today's flick of the day is Some Kind of Monster.
In 2001, American rock band Metallica who have sold 90 million records in their 30 year career found themselves at a crossroads. Their long time bass player had quit the group just as they were to start recording their first new album in 3 years and the camera crew follow them for the next two years as they struggle to get along with each other and record an album. Their management bring in therapist to help them deal with each other at a cost of $40,000 a month, with ridiculous consequences. The lead singer, James Hetfield checks himself into a rehab clinic and his bandmates do not see him for the best part of a year. The drummer, Lars Ulrich leads an ill judged campaign against internet file sharing. All the while they bicker like children and reveal themselves to be extremely self centred and controlling. Oh, yes and eventually they record a so-so album sans guitar solos and recruit a new bass player. 
The most compelling aspect of the film is how unintentionally revealing the band are of themselves. Ulrich comes across as deeply self absorbed and somebody who enjoys the wealth his music gives him as much as anything else despite his attempts to position himself otherwise. There is one scene in particular where he plays the new album for his father who rubbishes it and their relationship is particularly revealing. He struggles to get along with his lead singer at one point launching into a rant about how controlling he is before getting nose to nose and screaming "Fuck!". Hetfield is sombre throughout yet deeply controlling. Upon his return from rehab, the group switch to a noon to 4pm work schedule to allow him time with his children however Hetfield decrees that nobody else may review his vocal recordings after he leaves. All the while, the guitarist, Kirk Hammett remains quiet and only once does he burst forth to complain that the other two do not listen to him.
This aside, the band often come across as completely ridiculous. Some scenes would be fit for This Is Spinal Tap. There is one scene in which they decide that nobody is allowed  to comment on what anybody else is working on and their round table lyrics writing sessions would leave you with the impression that the creative process is not what it once was, with some laughably bad writing. My personal favourite is the scene where they are required to record a promo for a national radio competition by their management which they feel is beneath them, asking would Bono and The Edge do it before proceeding to take the piss out of it.

                                            [Metallica is asked to record a radio promo] 
                          Lars Ulrich: Hey it's Lars from Metallica. I'm about to stick 50 grand up your ass... 
                                            James Hetfield: ...One dollar at a time.

If the band do not cover themselves in glory then their therapist, Phil makes himself look very foolish indeed. Sporting a bizarre choice in knitwear, he spouts inane babble and seems determined to keep them in therapy despite their requests to cease. Whether they actually learn anything about themselves is a moot point.
All in all, a compelling way to spend a couple of spare hours, whether you are a fan of Metallica and their music or not. It is great psychological drama and would be compelling if they were learning impaired garbage collectors rather then wealthy musicians. 

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