Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Flick Of The Day: The Sweeney

Oi you diamond geezer? Fancy a trip to the flicks? I've got the one for you if you can Adam and Eve it and all for under an Ayrton Senna. You should go and have a butchers at today's flick of the day, The Sweeney. So hop in your Jam Jar or a Sherbert Dab and head to your local purveyor of home entertainment so you can feast your Mince Pies on this big screen adaptation of the 70's British cop show.
Ray Winstone, a man never afraid of playing the gangster, stars as Jack Regan a member of the old Sweeney Todd with a yearning for a Barney and a Bang Up and a proclivity for finishing his sentences with "We're the focking sweeney, son!" and "You're nicked mate!". Regan leads a group of old school cops with a penchant for clichéd dialogue and the sexual politics of a bygone era. Regan's main partner in (stopping) crime is George Carter played by Ben Drew while their unit is overseen by Frank Haskins played by Damian Lewis in upper class fop mode. Between extended scenes of Regan's illicit affair with a married woman in an impossibly palatial high rise Holiday Inn, he gets around to some actual police work. Granted this mainly takes the form of police chases, beating suspects and saying his catchphrase "We're the focking sweeney, son!" but he gets it done. Of course things can't go on like for this forever eventually a crime is committed and Regan and Co are forced into some investigative work.
There is nothing wrong with an enjoyable well made action picture. All too often I find myself being accused of being unable to enjoy simpler pleasures such as this in favour of obscure foreign language pictures and independent American cinema. However this is not the case, a well made action film can tick many boxes on the entertainment form. Unfortunately for all concerned, The Sweeney is not such a film. As much as I like Ray Winstone and his honest performances, this film is a terrible waste of his talents. The script is awful, plumbing every possible cliché to drive the film onward. The story is boredom punctuated by car chases. There is nothing original, everything feels like something you've seen before in better movies. It's big action scene, an extended shoot-out in the centre of London feels ripped off from Heat. The bad guys were rubber masks reminiscent of Point Break. 
This of course begs the question why was this film made? The Sweeney TV show ran for 3 series between 1975 and 1978 starring John Thaw, better known as Inspector Morse and everybody's favourite misogynistic wife beater Dennis Waterman. However that was more than 30 years ago, who was crying out for the jump to the big screen?  As with so many of these ill advised adaptations, it is something perhaps best left untouched. Nostalgia is popular because it shows us the rose tinted view of how things used to be. You never remember the crap elements, only the sunny days. Starsky & Hutch, The A Team, The Brady Bunch, The Dukes of Hazzard, Charlies Angels, Bewitched, Miami Vice, all awful television shows made into worse movies. You can add The Sweeney to this list. You're focking nicked son!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Flick of The Day: Premium Rush

2012 has been a big year for American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, there was his crucial and justly lauded turn in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, followed by the mind bending science fiction action of Looper alongside Bruce Willis and he is currently filling the screen space opposite Daniel Day Lewis in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln however perhaps his best performance of the year is in the little seen recent release Premium Rush about bike couriers on the streets of New York.
Levitt is a recent law school graduate named Wilee who spends his days in the (supposedly) high octane world of bike couriers criss crossing the streets of Manhattan as he delivers and collects his packages. It turns out to be an interesting sub culture and David Koepp's fast paced storytelling is well suited to pulling the audience into the this otherwise unseen brotherhood of wheelies. One afternoon Wilee arrives to collect a package with a difference.  This letter contains something which corrupt cop Bobby Monday played by the excellent Michael Shannon is desperate to get his hands on. There is a whole sub plot involving money laundering and people trafficking which explains the letter but I'm not going to bore you with it. It's merely a MacGuffin to drive the film on. All you need to know is that Wilee has it and Monday wants its, so begins a chase across the streets of Manhattan.
Levitt excels in the role of the underachiever with a clear moral code. Wilee may not be making the right decisions in his own life but he knows what the right thing to do is and puts himself on the line accordingly. The other impressive aspect of his performance is the sheer amount of fitness required for it. The cycling chase scenes are spectacular at times and they rely largely on Levitt's skill at the wheel. Michael Shannon's role is perhaps underwritten and we know nothing other than he faces a gambling debt and needs to score a large some of money in short order. Shannon is perhaps the best character actor in American cinema today though and he brings a gruff realism to the role.
The film is slight at barely 90 minutes and there isn't really and fat on the script that I can see but its fast paced nature never really lets up even in the flashback scenes and the film is all the better for it. It's enjoyable and it doesn't hang around long enough to overstay its welcome. Director David Koepp made his name as a screenwriter with a credit list of blockbusters that has to be seen to be believed but after 1999's Stir of Echoes and 2008's Ghost Town, this confirms his talent as a director of intelligent mainstream cinema.
All in all, this is an enjoyable break neck chase movie that makes the most of a talented cast and some excellent cinematography. The backdrop of the Manhattan streets is the perfect setting for such a high octane thriller as we have seen countless times for. A fine film.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Flick of the Day: Argo

The Tehran hostage crisis is one of the darker days of American history, indeed one of many such days in the course of American policy toward Iran before and after the fall of the Shah in 1979. For those unfamiliar, at the height of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, antipathy toward America spilled over as a group of zealous students stormed the embassy taking the staff hostage and threatening to execute them unless the hated Shah was returned to Iran to face trial. The hostage crisis lasted 444 days and directly contributed to the downfall of Jimmy Carter at the 1980 Presidential Election. That's the tale written in the history books however the lesser known story is that on the day the embassy fell six Americans escaped through a back door and sought refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. Today's flick of the day is the story of how those people escaped.
The film opens with CIA operative Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, being asked to review the State Department's plan for bringing their 6 diplomats out of Tehran under the noses of the Islamic regime as an expert in the area. He is so appalled at the dangerous stupidity and lack of foresight that he offers to come up with a plan at the behest of his boss played by Bryan Cranston. He quickly comes up with the idea of a fake film crew on location to scout for a new movie as a cover story to get the diplomats out. Thankfully the agency already has a contact in Hollywood in the form of John Goodman's make-up artist John Chambers. In an entertaining fashion, Goodman  takes through the ins and outs of the film business. Before long they have hired ageing producer Lester Siegel, played by the great Alan Arkin and are the road to making a film. They buy a low budget sci-fi script called Argo and set up a production company complete with business cards and an office. After a full page spread in Variety and a launch party, Mendez is on on his way to Iran to sneak the diplomats out. The tension begins to build as the full horrors of the revolution are revealed and the subterfuge begins to unravel.
Around the turn of the Noughties, Ben Affleck's career was in disarray after a string of poor films like Jersey Girl, Gigli and Paycheck. However over the last few years, he has matured into one of the most talented young actor/directors in Hollywood. Argo is his third effort as a director and builds on his previously strong work with Gone Baby Gone and The Town. From the get go, the film exudes the style and music of the era, that brief period at the end of the 1970's before the dawn of the Reagan 80's. As Tony and Chambers pass through the gates of a Hollywood studio, the Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits segues in. Everything feels of the era and there are some great stylistic flourishes which reinforce this sense of realism. The hardest part of making a period film like this is being true to the era and Affleck accomplishes this with aplomb.
Of course he is aided by a great script by Chris Terrio that is at times very funny and entertaining as it pokes fun at the fakery of the real Hollywood and at other times deadly serious as the tension mounts in Tehran. This tension is the real joy of the movie, it becomes almost unbearable as the film reaches its dramatic conclusion and I found myself on the edge of my seat at times. Affleck has created another triumph of a film.
                     In this regard, special attention must be made of the various fine performances, not least from Affleck himself. He is blessed with a male cast to die for in Arkin, Goodman and Cranston, some of the best actors working in Hollywood today. The most difficult roles are I think played by the 6 hostages to fortune stuck in Tehran as they are given little more than cursory back stories and they have to really work as actors to make us care about them.
Overall then, this is a very fine film and perhaps Affleck's best and most mature picture to date. I await his next move with interest. This is a definite contender for an Oscar in my mind if only for the near perfect rendition of an era that perhaps America would prefer to forget.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Flick of The Day: After Hours

Many great directors have oddities in their back catalogue, films that don't feel like their by the same director, that don't sit amongst the director's body of work. 1941 has long stood out on Steven Spielberg's list (a Comedy!) while Ridley Scott directed Thelma & Louise and Tim Burton's ill fated Planet of the Apes remake does not immediately seem like something you would expect him to create. Often these films stand out because they are of a lower quality than the rest of the director's work but sometimes there is a decent film there that just feels out of character. For Martin Scorsese, his 1985 dark comedy After Hours is such a film. This is perhaps because of the circumstance which surround its creation. A film which the great director very much fell into when his take on the The Last Temptation of Christ was cancelled by the studio just days before he was due to begin shooting, it is borne out of his need to make something and is all the better for it.
Paul, played by Griffin Dunne, is a jobbing word processor who after a long day at the office bumps into a quirky and pretty girl named Marcy in a New York cafe. Later he decides to venture out of his upper east side apartment in search of Marcy and her SoHo residence. So begins a nightmarish journey to the dark side of the city. After a manic taxi ride during which he loses all his money to a gust of wind, he arrives at Marcy's  down at heel part of town only to find that there is little chemistry and Marcy is at best a little odd. Marcy lives with an equally eccentric character, a sculptor named Kiki played by Linda Fiorentino. Paul decides to flee the apartment and heads for home on the subway, or rather he would have but for his shortage of funds. Facing a walk home in the teeming rain, he makes for an empty dive bar where the bartender, played by John Heard offers to spot him the train fare if he goes to his apartment to set his burglary alarm. Of course, Paul is mistaken for a thief and is soon being pursued by a murderous mob of vigilantes. Paul is soon running for his life and his night goes from bad to worse as a series of increasingly bizarre events conspire to stop him from getting home.
While the events of Paul's night in SoHo are decidedly bizarre, they always feel plausible and knit together with a veneer of truth. This credibility is necessary to keep the viewer engaged as things go from bad to worse. The character of Paul himself bares each new event with a charm that would be beyond most people and gives him an endearing quality which carries the film to its end.
This kind of dark black comedy is not something which Scorsese would be known for and it would be hard to imagine him making such a film today. That said, the film is replete with the kind of visual displays of talent for which he has long been famed. At one point a set of keys are thrown to Paul from a height, Scorsese shows us this from the point of view of the keys plummeting toward Paul. It is at all times a stylish movie, the director knows his surroundings well and does his best to show this part of the city off. This is New York during the dark days of the 1980's before the mayorship of Rudy Giuliani sought to clean the streets of crime and grime. This is a film very much of its time. The noir elements suit the mood of the film and heighten the feeling of a journey into the unknown for the relative Milquetoast that is Griffin Dunne's Paul.
While Martin Scorsese would go on to bigger and better things, there is much to enjoy in this mid career character piece. It captures both a time and a place which have come to be culturally significant since the film was made. The story, bizarre as it is never feels like an elaborate con job on the audience and if anything holds its own in the manner of many bar tales that begin, "You won't believe what happened to me last night...".

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Flick of the Day: Prometheus

When internet based rumours began to circulate in 2011 that Ridley Scott's next film Prometheus, would be a prequel to the Alien franchise which began with his seminal sci-fi Alien in 1979, there was excitement to say the least. The original has spawned a plethora of sequels, some good and some awful. How then would it fair with the return of its creator who hasn't made a film in the sci-fi genre for nearly 30 years?
The first thing that must be said is that this is only tangentially related to the original series of films. In that sense it stands on its own and has to be judged in this context. It is a far more sedate affair than any previous entry in the series in any case. Opening with a team of researchers led by Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw discovering mysterious cave paintings on the isle of Skye in the year 2089, we are soon aboard the exploration ship Prometheus on the way to a planet unknown in search of something unknown. Before long we find that the crew includes our intrepid researchers along with a Lawrence of Arabia obsessed robot named David played by the excellent Michael Fassbender. The crew is rounded out by Idris Elba as a hard talking Captain and Charlize Theron as the cold corporate bitch. Upon arrival at the earth like planet, a large and imposing dome like edifice is discovered and of course must be investigated. The rest is fait-accomplait and why should I ruin the surprise.
I could never call myself a science fiction aficionado, however I believe that the truly great films to emerge from the genre succeed as such because they succeed firstly as good drama. Star Wars could very well be a tale of familial discord, Blade Runner could be about the dangers of racial segregation and if Star Trek is about anything it is surely the brotherly love between Kirk and Spock. Unfortunately, this film does not meet such vaulted standards. The script is so concerned with telling a grand tale of the origin of the human race that it fails to develop its own characters as believable human beings. Indeed, the most realistic character is the robot David.
This is a fatal flaw because as any horror fan will tell you if you don't care enough about the characters when the blood begins to fly then it quickly becomes a terribly dull non-event. How can you create dramatic tension with flat pack characters?
This apart, the film is not without some genuinely enjoyable moments not least in terms of the performance of Michael Fassbender who steals every scene he appears in. He gives the robotic David an eerie inhuman quality that is a joy to behold. Unfortunately these enjoyable moments get somewhat swallowed by the denseness of the storyline. There is just too much background and plotting without enough character development or even god forbid genuine action. 
Think back to how thrilling Alien was in 1979 or even its sequel? This is not in the same league unfortunately. It gets bogged down in telling its story and does that with little fanfare and much workmanlike film-making. Alas, the sheer promise of the film led to a massive box office haul and already there is a sequel in the works, so what do I know?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Not The Flick of The Day: Rock of Ages

Hey YOU! Do you like spandex? Do you like poodle haired soft rock from the 1980's? Do you enjoy the particular visual triumph of singing sunset strip hookers? Wanna see Alec Baldwin (now) in the denims he wore in the 80's? Do you think Tom Cruise can play whatever role he wants? Well Hollywood has the movie for you, Rock of Ages, the big screen adaptation of the boundlessly popular stage musical.
With a plot seemingly taken from an old Guns n Roses video (I am being facetious of course, Axl Rose would never use a plot so mundane when swimming with dolphins was an alternative), a pretty young thing named Sherrie played by Julianne Hough of the recent and even more risible Footloose remake arrives in Los Angeles (On a Greyhound no less) seeking fame and fortune. Unfortunately her baggage  is robbed almost as soon as she arrives and penniless she gets a job working at a famed rock club owned by Alec Baldwin's Dennis Dupree. It is harsh doses of reality like this which give this film its best moments. Ah, I remember the time I was mugged, Alec Baldwin gave me a job too and then sang a great Foreigner tune. Anyway, Sherrie meets  an equally vacuous male companion in the form of Diego Boneta and before long the pair are an item. Of course, there is trouble in paradise in the form of right wing mayor Mike Whitmore, played by a slumming it Bryan Cranston and his batty wife Catherine Zeta Jones. Together they plan to clean the city of its undesirable elements starting with migrant workers. Oh wait, that's real life sorry, no they want to start with the poodle haired rockers. Into this veritable feast of nonsensical bullshit steps quite aptly Tom Cruise. Tom is Stacee Jaxx, a rock god of the confused variety. Cruise plays Jaxx as a kind of perma-stoned demonic messiah who exudes befuddlement and craziness in equal measure. This is Tom Cruise by the way. No irony there at all.
At one point a reporter asks Stacee what the real him is like which causes him to burst into a version of the old Bon Jovi number "Wanted Dead or Alive". This happens quite a lot in Rock of Ages. In lieu of actual plot development characters burst into another soft rock classic. Perhaps this is how modern musicals are supposed to be. Maybe somewhere in the world somebody is sitting in a theatre waiting for a musical to start and saying to their partner "Thank god there is none of that difficult plot stuff, just songs". There is nothing wrong with the musical numbers, nobody makes a fool of themselves, well not any more of a fool, but it just seems at times likes many of the songs are shoehorned in for no good reason other than: 
"Ooh, we've paid for that Journey song, better use it here. "
"But it's a scene where somebody is throwing up?"
"Yeah, a bit of Don't Stop Believing will work"
Maybe I'm just not being fair? Maybe this is exactly what the people of earth wanted to spend their 7 quid on? Maybe the world hasn't tired of Russell Brand? Maybe the world wants to see Tom Cruise singing "I want to know what love is" while face to face with a woman's rear end? That being the case, this is your film world, enjoy it.
Anyway it all comes to a climax in an orgy of Journey and Starship tunes. I know, Starship! I thought they were tied up in a basement somewhere for crimes against music. If there is a ray of light in an otherwise depressing two hours of my life, Paul Giamatti is excellently sleazy as Stacee's manager.
To finish then, rather than the usual trailer which would give this risible trash too much credit, below is Starship's We Built This City (On Rock and Roll) in full.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Flick of the Day: To Rome With Love

Of all the directors and actors to feature on the Daily Flick since its inception, Woody Allen has featured more than most, with no fewer than 5 of his films on show. Over the last few years, his work has largely been a trek through Europe and it has not been without success. London, Barcelona, and Paris have all starred and his latest film, To Rome With Love takes place in the eternal city. While each of the films from Woody's European sojourn have had their moments, it would be difficult to say they are in the same league as some of his earlier work yet average Woody Allen is still a step above many film makers.
As much a collection of disparate stories set against the backdrop of modern Rome as it is a contiguous tale, Allen has crafted his usual concoction of comedy, love and life with this film. There are four distinct tales which do not interact beyond their setting. Allen is Jerry, a retired avant garde opera director visiting the city with his wife played by the brilliant Judy Davis who discovers that his daughter's new father-in-law is a talented vocalist who can only sing in the shower. Roberto Benigni is an average Roman businessman who suddenly becomes inexplicably famous. Meanwhile a young Italian couple Antonio and Milly arrive in the city on their honeymoon and through a series of bizarre events find Penelope Cruz's prostitute pretending to be Antonio's wife in front of his relatives. Finally in perhaps the best story, Alec Baldwin is an American architect who while searching for the street he lived on thirty years previously meets a younger version of himself in the shape of Jesse Eisenberg who is lusting after his girlfriend's flirtatious friend Monica, played by Ellen Page.
While this is nowhere near classic era Woody Allen and indeed is a step down from last year's Midnight in Paris, there is still much to enjoy. Allen can still write some great one liners and it is a pleasure to see him on the big screen again as an actor for the first time since 2006's Scoop. As per usual he has assembled a fine cast with Eisenberg, Davis and Cruz getting some of the best lines.
Like Match Point and Midnight in Paris before it, this film doesn't live in a Rome that many Romans will recognise with little of the real world allowed to pollute our screens. No opportunity to film a scene in front of some Roman landmark is missed. While this method suited the storyline of Midnight in Paris which was about how people idealise places and times in their mind, it can at times be jarring here, felling too much like a foreigner's idealised vision of Rome.
An enjoyable if disjointed film then but a funny one at that. The combination of 4 different stories leaves the film lacking in a continuity of tone and without any real centre. Still, it has all the usual charm and humour of Allen to carry it through. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Flick of the Day: Lawless

Australian director John Hillcoat burst onto the scene with his ultra violent yet soulful take on the Western, The Proposition from a script by fellow Aussie Nick Cave, The sombre tone of that film was perfectly suited to his next film, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's masterful apocalyptic novel The Road. That film had its moments but suffered from the sheer difficulty of recreating the unique prose of McCarthy. His latest work is another adaptation, this time of a true story, and another collaboration with Nick Cave. Lawless is a tale of bootlegging and in the backwoods of Virginia during the prohibition era and is today's flick of the day.
In the depths of the great depression, the effects of prohibition have yet to reach Franklin County, Virginia where the three Bondurant brothers make a quiet living selling their home distilled moonshine. Forrest, played by the man of the moment Tom Hardy, is tough and taciturn with an air of invincibility and the natural leader of the three. Howard, played by Australian Jason Clarke, is a feckless rogue but possessed of an immense strength and propensity for violence. Finally there is the runt of the litter, Jack, played by everybody's favourite  punching bag Shia LaBeouf is ambitious and has a penchant for the gangster lifestyle. Into this Hank Williams song steps the law in the form of pantomime villain Charlie Rakes. I say pantomime because Guy Pearce has somewhat inexplicably chose to portray Charlie with all the depth and realism of the wicked witch of the west. Alas, more of that anon, back to the tale. Rakes is determined to stamp out the illegal liquor business unless they are willing to grease the wheels of justice. Suffice as to say, Forrest is not willing to back down and sets the family on a collision course with the vicious Rakes.
It would be wrong to criticise Hillcoat too much for Lawless flaws, for there is much to enjoy here. Not least of which is Tom Hardy's solid and impressive performance as the clan leader determined not to back down in the face of the terrorist tactics of Charlie Rakes. LaBeouf gets a lot of criticism as an actor, much of it deserved however here he is perfectly matched with the role of Jack, a brash young man who dreams of the big time. The great Gary Oldman is criminally underused as an urban gangster who buys the brother's booze, and that's it really, that is all he does in the movie. Oh wait, he fires a Thompson gun once and swings a shovel. Jessica Chastain is better served as the mysterious woman with a past who comes into the Bondurant's lives. I've enjoyed her work since last year's Take Shelter and she is strong again in an underwritten role.
Now inevitably we must come to Guy Pearce and his "acting". I don't quite know why he chose to play the brutish Charlie Rakes with all the subtlety of a kick to the scrotum but there you go. He hams it up throughout, flouncing across the screen with a voice that sounds not dissimilar to one of the lepers in Ben Hur while committing acts of savagery and having an obsession with cleanliness. He is the worst thing about the film but necessary to drive the plot forward.
That said, this is by no means a bad film. It is entertaining throughout and the Virginia setting has an authenticity sadly lacking in Michael Mann's dull Public Enemies which deals with the same period. The tale of the Bondurant clan is of course a true story something which in and off itself makes the film more interesting. Hillcoat knows how to frame a shot and the scenery of the Virginia backwoods is eerily beautiful.  This accompanied by the well choreographed bouts of violence creates a film that is nothing if not stylish and feels of the period. A worthy endeavour.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Flick of the Day: The Limey

Steven Soderbergh is one of that rare breed of film-makers that can very neatly divide opinion amongst cinema goers. While undoubtedly a talented visual artist, there is a tendency in some of his weakest films toward avant garde film making for the sake of it rather than to break new ground as part of telling a story such as the frankly dull The Good German or Full Frontal. You either find his various stylistic flourishes as a necessary part of the storytelling process or else something that is irritatingly superfluous. Think of the  use of yellow and blue filters to signify the difference between the US and Mexico in perhaps his best film, 2000's Traffic. It was smart but it could also be jarring. He is at his best when focusing on character driven drama such as last year's Contagion or today's flick of the day, The Limey, an old-school revenge flick from 1999.
Terence Stamp in one of his best roles in years plays Wilson, a hardened criminal and a man that exudes the possibility of violence at all times is the Limey of the title. An Englishman abroad, he arrives in Los Angeles after being released from his latest stretch in prison in the UK in search of the truth in relation to the recent death of his estranged daughter, Jenny. He soon makes contact with with he friend Eduardo, played by the always useful character actor Luis Guzman. Wilson befriends Eduardo and seeks his help for filling in the blanks around Jenny's death in a supposed car accident. He has his own suspicions however centred around Jenny's long term boyfriend and millionaire record producer Terry Valentine, played by that other 60's icon Peter Fonda. With Eduardo's help Wilson is soon doing battle with some of the most dangerous elements of the L.A underworld as he fights his way to Terry Valentine and the truth about his daughters death.
Soderbergh's Limey is as much about personal redemption as it is about its tale of revenge. While Wilson is relentless in his pursuit of those closest to his daughter's untimely death, he also comes to realise that whatever his actions now in seeking revenge, he was never there for his daughter when she needed him. It is this realisation that he is at least partially culpable for her death which drives the film toward its conclusion. He comes to see that he has wasted away his life and his relationship with his daughter for a life of crime but by the end is prepared to live with the consequences which have made him an angry man. Stamp channels this natural anger into his portrayal of Wilson and gives a masterful performance of a violent man bent on revenge who is not without a human side, something highlighted in some well chosen flash backs of Stamp as a young man from 1968's Poor Cow. This contrast between the different side of Wilson's character highlight the subtlety of Stamp's performance.
While not a commercial success on its release, this is a more a comment on the lack of star power in a cast headlined by Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda than on the relative quality of the film. This is a first rate thriller with actors at the top of their game but like so many of Soderbergh's films, it asks a lot of an audience to pay attention to a film that is more meditative than action packed. That said. for the effort and attention paid, there is a little gem of a movie on offer. While Stamp dominates every scene from beginning to end, special praise must go to Guzman for his measured portrayal of an ex-con who wants to get his life back on track while also doing what he can for his lost friend. Fonda is also strong as a feckless womaniser with a lack of backbone and a fondness of whining as Valentine. It is the contrast between the strict discipline of Wilson and the lazy arrogance of Valentine which drive the film to its conclusion.
All in all, this is another Soderbergh contradiction, the quiet revenge movie. It is at times violent but often more meditative and sombre in tone. That said, it is always entertaining and is packed with some fine performances as a journey to the dark side of Los Angeles. Well worth a viewing.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Flick of The Day: Shadow Dancer

There are many compelling stories to be found in the near thirty years of internecine conflict which struck Northern Ireland over the last few decades. Perhaps the most interesting tale are those individuals who risked their lives to spy on the various terrorist groups at the behest of the British government, today's flick of the day Shadow Dancer, is such a tale.
Set in Belfast in 1993 in the dying days of the conflict as peace rears its head, Shadow Dancer is the story of Colette McVeigh a committed IRA terrorist. While attempting to place a bomb on the London Underground, she is captured by MI5 in the form of  the mild mannered but diligent agent Mac, played by Clive Owen. Mac offers her two options, either go to prison or go on the payroll. A reluctant Colette opts to spy so that she can protect her young son and returns to Belfast. We learn that her family are deeply involved in the cause with her two brothers Gerry and Connor operating their own unit. Gerry is the quiet yet disturbingly  intense commander played by the brilliant Aidan Gillen while Connor played by Domhnall Gleeson is floppy haired and loose lipped yet no less committed than his brother. Watching over this is the creepy Kevin, played by David Wilmot in a fine performance, an IRA lieutenant trying to root out any informants in the group. It becomes apparent that Kevin is deeply suspicious of Colette. As Colette begins to pass information, the noose begins to tighten around her family as a series of near misses ratchet up the tension. 
A dark film from beginning to end, it is perhaps the best portrayal that I have come across of the sheer terror that was caused in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.  The sword of Damocles which hangs over Colette throughout is something which affected all inhabitants of that troubled land at some time. The fear of what was around the corner, a bullet or a bomb with your name on it. This creates and incredible tension which becomes unbearable as the film reaches its climax. The twist in the tale when it comes is unexpected but yet not out of character to the rest of the film.
While James March direction is assured throughout, he is aided by some great performances. The male leads deliver pitch perfect performances but particular attention must go to Andrea Riseborough as Colette and Brid Brennan as her mother, two women who are victims of circumstance and yet persevere to the bitter end. They both bring a great presence to the screen.
An intense gripping film throughout, this is an excellent adaptation of the earlier novel which builds from a slow burn to an explosive finale. Debuting out of competition at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2012, it is a must see.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tony Scott, 1944-2012, Director

The best compliment I think you can pay a director is that his work is entertaining and unpretentious. Over a 30 plus year career, Tony Scott was certainly that. He was the king of the Hollywood action picture that didn't assume its audience were barely sentient beings. He made movies for adults that liked spectacle. 

Tony Scott 1944-2012

Perhaps his biggest hit was the decade defining Top Gun which launched the career of Tom Cruise, its tale of  overheated fighter pilots acting as the best recruiting poster the U.S. military ever had. It may not have been to everyone's taste but the numbers didn't lie. For Tony, they never did. His work was always commercially viable. He followed Top Gun with the likes of Beverly Hills Cop II and The Last Boy Scout, the latter of which stands out today as being one of the last of the 80's style action pictures replete with excess violence, profanity and some great one liners. They were of their time and Tony was the master:

It was not his best work however, that was to come later on with his adaptation of an early Quentin Tarantino script in 1993's True Romance. Tarantino's script is a heady mix of road movie, love story and crime drama. He combined this with a great cast including James Gandolfini, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. The famous scene between the latter two still stands today as one of the greats, if you haven't seen it yet you really should watch the below:

He followed this with Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State, both in collaboration with the great Gene Hackman. The first was an old school thriller about the paranoia aboard a submarine at war, a very tightly made film you can feel the sweat dripping off the characters deep beneath the ocean. The second was equally about paranoia, this time to do with the encroachment of the state on civil liberties with the growth of information technology. Both were big hits in their day and have stood the test of time.

2001's Spy Game is a much overlooked film, it was direct to video on this side of the Atlantic which is a shame and surprising given the combination of Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. It tells a story of a friendship over the course of the cold war amongst two CIA spies. The Daily Flick review is here.

He hadn't slowed down as a director over recent years and was still turning out enjoyable cinema. 2004's Man on Fire will I think be seen as a minor classic in years to come. It is exactly the kind of revenge thriller that has like Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia become lauded in recent years. A dark and disturbing look at vengeance on the streets of Mexico City, it drips with character and moves to the beat of the drug trade which fuels the violence in that country.

Tony's last completed film, 2010's Unstoppable was again a collaboration with Denzel Washington, this time a very old school tale of a runaway train based on a true story. It was a simple, highly entertaining thriller that didn't hang around long enough to irritate. That seems to be the most one can hope for from a studio blockbuster any more. It is a true shame that we won't have any more Tony Scott films.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Flick of the Day: The Imposter

It is rare for a film to truly surprise you. Very often you know at least a brief outline of the plot and who is in it and you may even have read a few reviews.  This has its advantages of course, one obvious one being you get to choose the films you want to see. However it does mean that film will rarely shock you or challenge what you thought the film was going to be about. I had the pleasure this evening of seeing the latest film from British documentary film-maker Bart Layton without any prior knowledge of the subject matter and it made for an excellent viewing experience.
In 1994 in San Antonio, Texas,  13 year old Nicholas Barclay telephoned home from a basketball court a few miles from his house. His older brother Jason answered and Nicholas asked for a ride home. Their mother who worked nights was asleep in the next room. Jason didn't like to wake her so he told Nicholas to walk.  Nicholas was never seen again and no trace of him was ever found despite an exhaustive search. He remained on the missing persons list as the years went by. Three years later the Spanish police picked up a young boy who was monosyllabic and cowering in the doorway of a telephone kiosk. After a lengthy interview, the boy revealed that he was an American who had been abducted three years previously. He claims to be Nicholas Barclay. Despite the improbable nature of such an eventuality, Nicholas sister Carey travels to Spain and confirms the boy's identity and he is quickly reunited with his family. Of course we the audience know that this is not Nicholas, this is the work of serial French impostor Frederic Bourdin. It soon becomes apparent to all that whoever this man is, it isn't the long lost Nicholas, including the FBI special agent charged with interviewing him. There are so many inconsistencies in his tale and basic flaws like a difference in eye colour, that it is obvious. However, this is when the tale shifts on you and this is why it is great film making. The family refuse to provide DNA samples to prove the fraud and keep the impostor as their son. It is almost as if they have a reason for wanting to believe the lie, as if perhaps there is more to Nicholas disappearance then it first appears.
Perhaps the strongest element of Bart Layton's extraordinary film is the decision to lay out the tale from the outset and allow the audience to make their own mind up about what happened. It creates tension in a story that is tension filled already giving the film the kind of dramatic conclusion normally scene in Hollywood thrillers.  We are also left with the feeling that neither side is telling the absolute truth but that Frederic Bourdin is an inveterate liar with a deep undiagnosed psychological problem. He is a chameleon who never really reveals his true self on screen. 
The truth becomes something which you never have a grasp on, a tricky path for a documentary to follow. It is at times deeply sad, at times quite unintentionally humorous such is the bizarre nature of some of the characters who populate this story, but it is always compelling. I normally avoid any documentary where actors are used to dramatize events that were never captured on film but the clever mixture of this method with interview footage with all of the main parties give the film a dramatic weight.
 An extraordinary story and a very good film, I saw The Impostor as it was screening as the opening film of the IFI's Stranger Than Fiction documentary film festival. If you do have the opportunity to see it, I strongly urge you to take it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Flick of The Day: Vertigo

The most recent issue of Sight and Sound detailed the results of the venerated magazines once a decade poll of directors and critics to produce a list of the best films of all time. Orson Welles brilliant Citizen Kane has long enjoyed a position atop the pile so it was a surprise then to see it drop to 2nd in the latest poll and perhaps equally surprising was the film which toppled it. Hitchcock's Vertigo was for many years seen as one of the great directors lesser pictures, being as it was box office flop on its original release in 1958. This was if it was seen at all, Hitchcock had purchased the rights for the film so that they be passed on to his daughter in his will and the film was thus largely unavailable for distribution until a new print was issued in 1996. This served to garner the film a reappraisal as a classic.
Opening with a bravura foot chase sequence across the rooftops of San Francisco, this is a film that oozes modernity and it quickly becomes obvious why it was misunderstood on release. Jimmy Stewart plays a police detective, John "Scottie" Ferguson, who due to his sudden bouts of vertigo can no longer do his job and is forced into retirement. He spends his days verbally jousting with his old friend Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes who would go on to fame in the 1980's with TV's Dallas. He is approached by an old friend Gavin Elster who is worried that his wife Madeline has become possessed by the spirit of a deceased relative. Scottie reluctantly agrees to investigate Madeline, played the icy blonde Kim Novak. He follows her around the city in a near wordless montage, captured in gorgeous Technicolour. After saving her from a suicide attempt, he falls in love and gradually becomes obsessed with Madeline's beauty before tragedy strikes. The second half the film then challenges our perceptions about what we thought we saw and of the true nature of the characters involved.
After the failure of the film to shift tickets at the box office, Hitchcock blamed Stewart for being too old to play the interest and they never worked together again despite what had been a rich vein of success up to that point. Whether this was the cause of the film's failure is an arguable point but what can't be argued is that Jimmy is showing his age. Looking all of his 50 years, the age gap with 25 year old Novak is noticeable given the direction of the plot. That said, there is no doubting the quality of Stewart's performance. It is unlike almost anything else in his career and is by the standards of the day, out there. He gradually becomes gripped by the memory of Novak's Madeline and becomes a dangerous wild eyed obsessive. This is not the laconic and verbose Stewart of Rear Window, this is a man on the edge.
In terms of technical prowess, this is equally impressive. Hitchcock pioneered the use of a dolly zoom to create the effect of a perspective shift to the viewers eye. This combined with the hypnotic score of Bernard Herrmann create a film that is at times unsettling, forcing the viewer to be on edge throughout. As regards its depiction of obsession and the dangers therein, there are few films to match it. Stewart's Scottie is a man with a tortured psyche who it becomes clear can not be relied upon.
So then is it the best film of all time? That is a difficult question, it is more compelling then it is enjoyable. It really depends on what you are looking for in determining greatness. I have long believed that it is the technical superiority and ground breaking narrative which have given Citizen Kane such a burnished reputation. For me, it is still the better film. Though neither would rank so high in my rank of favourites.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Flick of the Day: The Yakuza

Sydney Pollack, who passed away in May 2008, was one of the great underestimated talents of American cinema in the last century. A director, producer and actor, he was a multi talented individual who won two Academy Awards. Perhaps his most endearing talent was his ability as an artist to turn his hand to a diverse range of genres. From comedy to thrillers to romance to drama, he could direct a picture. In this vein, today's flick of the day is The Yakuza, a 1974 Japan set neo-noir.
A film that was little seen on its original release, The Yakuza was directed by Pollack from a script by Paul Schrader who would go onto find greater fame with his script for Taxi Driver and Blue Collar. An ageing Robert Mitchum is Harry Kilmer, an ex-military policeman asked to return to Japan by an old friend to intervene on behalf of his daughter who has been kidnapped by members of the Yakuza. Kilmer has not been back to Japan for 20 years since the last days of the occupation and returning brings back many memories. He reconnects with his old flame Eiko and her brother Ken, who was a high ranking Yakuza when Harry left Japan and Harry's sworn enemy. Ken is played by the great Japanese actor Takakura Ken. Ken has always resented Harry as he took care of Eiko during the war and thus is owed a debt that cannot be repaid by Ken. In an effort to repay this debt, Harry and Ken, who has left the Yakuza, join forces to save the girl. All however is not as it seems and Harry is forced to see where his true loyalties and those of his friends lie as the film moves to a dramatic and fitting finale.
The Yakuza is an unusual film for its era, even in the supposedly enlightened 70's. It displays a strong degree of cultural sensitivity and a surprisingly deep understanding of Japanese culture. This is perhaps due to Paul Schrader's meticulously researched script, based on a story by his brother Leonard. Schrader was one of the great writing talents to emerge from the 70's new wave of American cinema and though he would go on to greater things, this is a fine debut. The film is very much an exploration of the themes of guilt and honour. Mitchum's Harry is a world weary vet who has to question his past actions and even his point of view to reconcile with Ken and become immersed once more in Japanese culture.
Pollack as a director has always been more known for his ability to draw performances from actors then for a distinct visual style and this is evident in this film. Mitchum gives one of the best performances of his later career and gives this appearance throughout of carrying a great burden on his shoulders, namely his past. That said, the film is visually stylish, making great use of the almost otherworldly nature of hyper modern Japan. There is colour galore, with an Autumnal tone throughout perhaps to enforce the feeling of impending death.

It really is a shame that this film was not seen by a wider audience on its release as it is a gem. A surprisingly intelligent and deep tale will hold your interest throughout while Ken and Harry form a great partnership. At times a sober and quiet meditation on sacrifice, it introduces western audiences to the nature of Japanese culture and beliefs. Yet in the end, it delivers a thrilling and spectacular denouement in which Ken shows his incredible skills with a katana.
The decision to use ethnic actors and to film in Japan may not seem ground breaking for a modern cinema goer but they were at the time. You have to imagine this is an era where it was only a few short years on from Genghis Khan being played by John Wayne or an Apache Native American being played by Burt Lancaster. It is a good thing that this is no longer something seen as acceptable and yet it sets this film apart and marks it as something which along with the subject matter, is ahead of its time. A fine film.

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