Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Flick of The Day: King of New York

I have looked at the decline of New York City in the 70's and 80's previously in my reviews of  Scorsese's Bringing Out The Dead and  James Gray's We Own The Night and it is indeed a rich canvas for filmmakers to work with. Abel Ferrara has long used this as his milieu with some successes such as 1992's Bad Lieutenant and  some notable failures such as today's flick of the day, King of New York. During its premiere at the 1990 New York Film Festival, much of the audience walked out including Ferrara's own wife. In the years since its release it has come to be seen for what it is, a stylish b-movie oddity with an uneven script that is held together by a towering performance from Christopher Walken as the drug kingpin of the title.
Opening with the release from prison of Frank White, played by Walken, the film depicts the grimy underbelly of New York from the backseat of a limousine in a memorable opening sequence. After his stint behind bars Frank is acutely aware of how his exploitation of society as a drug trafficker had made him a wealthy man. Determined to give something back to the neighbourhood, he sets out to reclaim his throne and finance the construction of a hospital with his ill gotten gains. To do this he needs the help of the various factions which control the city. Much like an episode of the PlayStation series Grand Theft Auto, each of the gangs are represented along racial lines. There are Asians, Italians, Colombians and African Americans each nastier than the last and again much like a computer game, their refusal to bow to Frank leads to scenes of highly stylised violence usually led by Frank's right hand man Jimmy Jump, played with manic abandon by Laurence Fishburne. Ultimately Frank's attempts to do good lead to a major gang war where even hard nosed cops led by David Caruso are out to get him before a dramatic bullet riddled finale in Times Square.
It should be plain by now that I don't view this film as a classic by any means but that is not to say it doesn't ask some interesting questions about the effects of the drug trade on a city and its people. Released at the end of the Reagan 80's when the war on drugs became front page news, this film pointedly shows how much of a failure these efforts had been. Frank views himself as a businessman and as he puts it:

"You think ambushing me in some nightclub's gonna stop what makes people take drugs? This country spends $100 billion a year on getting high, and it's not because of me. All that time I was wasting in jail, it just got worse. I'm not your problem. I'm just a businessman. "

This could have been a thrilling examination of one man's rise and fall but too often the script resorts to stock cliché's from Gangster 101. Ferrara's visual flights of fancy while stylish and beautiful often detract from the film, giving it a cartoonish air, something enforced by the sheer frivolity of characters like Jimmy Jump and bullet strewn scenes that don't serve to move the plot forward. Very much a missed opportunity.
If the film has a redeeming factor it is the performance of Christopher Walken. A real talent when it comes to playing menacing villains, he shines throughout as Frank. Imbuing the character with a sociopathic streak while still making a case for him being the most sane character in the film, Walken carries the film when the script lets itself down.

Roy Bishop: You expected to get away with killing all these people? 
Frank White: I spent half my life in prison. I never got away with anything, and I never killed anybody that didn't deserve it. 
Roy Bishop: Who made you judge and jury? 
Frank White: Well, it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

While far from the car crash its premiere would have suggested and not worthy of the opprobrium heaped upon it on it release, this is a deeply flawed film with an uneven script and visual tone. Walken is strong enough to make the film watchable but it is no more then that. As a time capsule it takes some beating though, capturing a city and a period that has long since passed into the realm of urban myths. The New York underworld during the 80's? No it was never as stylish as even Abel Ferrara imagines but then what is?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Flick of The Day: The Conversation

When celeb thrash magnate TMZ broke the news a couple of weeks back that Gene Hackman had been knocked down while cycling in Florida, I suddenly realised that I hadn't seen him on the big screen in quite awhile. One of the all time greats, Hackman is now semi-retired having not appeared in a film since 2004's lacklustre Welcome to Mooseport. Turning 82 next week though, he has surely earned a rest with a fine career behind him including such memorable roles as The French Connection and more recently The Royal Tenenbaums. Today's flick of the day is another one of his classic roles in  Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation.
Made between the first two Godfather films which cemented his reputation as one of the best of the 70's auteurs, this is no less a masterpiece from Coppola though very much more of an art house film then those aforementioned pictures. Hackman is his usual reliable self as surveillance expert Harry Caul, the best in the business but a man wracked by the guilt of the damage caused by his telephone tapping and hidden cameras. Paranoid about everyone he meets, he is unable to relate to friends or make close connections because he can't get close enough to tell them any secrets about himself and his life. He takes on a case involving recording the conversation of a young couple in a busy San Francisco square though wary of the consequences. Together with his operative Stan, played by the late and truly great John Cazale, he records the conversation. At first glance it appears innocent enough but as the film progresses and Harry gets more and more detail, we learn that this is a dangerous conversation. Harry delivers it after a fashion to the large corporation that has requested it represented by an effete minion played by Harrison Ford and the Director played by an uncredited Robert Duvall. Harry fears for the young couple and attempts to keep his investigation ongoing, deeply worried about the consequences of his actions. However there is a twist in this tale and after all how closely did you listen to the conversation?
It is a crying shame that Coppola's career as a director took such a sharp downturn after his 70's heyday, reduced to making studio schlock like Jack, for when he was good he was very good indeed. A product of the short lived Director's Company, an attempt by Coppola to gain some freedom in his film making by bypassing the studio system, The Conversation is one of the true gems of 70's Hollywood. Making great use of the burgeoning sound technology, it weaves a fine tale of deceit and paranoia largely through the use of sound editing which makes the audience question what they are hearing, to question the nature of privacy in the modern world. This is something which is as relevant if not more relevant today as it was then.

Harry Caul: [upset, walking over to Martin seated] What are you doing here? 
Martin Stett: Take it easy I'm just a messenger. I brought you a drink. 
Harry Caul: I don't want your drink. Why are you following me? 
Martin Stett: I'm not following you I'm looking for you. There's a big difference.

Of course it helps when you assemble such a fine cast. Duvall, Hackman, Ford and Cazale all on one screen and all giving nuanced performances from a fine script which plays well on the audiences own fears. 

A commercial failure on release, perhaps lost between the success of the Godfather behemoth. it has since come to be seen for what it is. A ground breaking classic. Before this film, soundtracks were for dialogue and music. Coppola makes the soundtrack the heart of the film. Snippets of conversation, street musicians busking and the general hubbub of urban life are captured perfectly. It brought subtlety to how something was said, showing that the little inflection in speech can turn in a conversation on its head. Indeed, this is the root cause of the last minute twist which causes the audience the reassess what they heard. 
Perhaps today this film would not get made and even if did it would not have some of the biggest stars of the day in it. It would be a shame because for smart, well acted suspense, you really don't have to look any further. A classic

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Flick of The Day: Revolutionary Road

Today's flick of the day is Sam Mendes adaptation of Richard Yates novel of suburban isolation and marital discord in 1950's America, Revolutionary Road. Tracing through many of the same themes as Mendes earlier work American Beauty, this is a beautiful and tragic tale with strong performances from Leonardo DiCaprioKate Winslet and an impressive turn from Michael Shannon.
Opening in the late 1940's, Frank played by DiCaprio in perhaps his most mature and studied performance to date meets April, played by the always reliable Kate Winslet. Frank is a drifting longshoreman while April is an aspiring actress. They fall in love, each attracted to their own belief that they will do something special with their lives. After their initial meeting, we fast forward to find them living in the idyllic surroundings of Revolutionary Road. This whitewashed paradise of suburbia hides the quiet isolation of its inhabitants. All is not well with Wheeler family. Frank is trapped in a career he detests, afraid he is becoming more like his father, working for an office equipment company. April is equally dissatisfied with life, finding the cloying life of a suburban housewife too much to bare. Where once they imagined themselves as free spirits, they are gradually coming to the conclusion that they are just the same as the other denizens of their bedroom community. As their marriage begins to disintegrate, they lash out at each other in increasingly vicious arguments while each begins joyless extramarital affairs. Into this maelstrom arrives the mentally unstable son of a neighbour John, played with a brilliant mordancy by Michael Shannon that leaves your with the belief that he is the only really sane character. As the film moves towards its shocking and affecting conclusion, the tension becomes almost too much to take and the frustration of Frank and April boils over with disastrous consequences.
Mendes uses all of his skill as a director to create the glossy and clean image of suburban America in all its 1950's glory. It is a very beautifully shot film, with vibrant colours that capture the era. No less of an achievement is the manner in which this surface sheen is shown to be deeply flawed beneath the surface. To the outside, Frank and April are the perfect couple but underneath they are dying. Winslet and DiCaprio have a natural chemistry and this makes the viciousness of their arguments all the more compelling. If there is one criticism of Mendes storytelling it is that after the brief scene were they meet, we never really see how they got together. As an audience, we don't know what they have invested in the relationship and thus can easily find yourself wondering why they try and stay together?
Frank and April have built up this public façade as they perfect couple that are above the fray and feel the need perhaps to keep it up. This façade is quickly taken apart by the character of John played by a brilliant Michael Shannon. A mentally troubled mathematician who has undergone electroshock therapy, he cuts to the very core of what is wrong with them as people, their deep dysfunction. As he is scorned by those around him, we see that perhaps John is nowhere near as crazy as he looks.

John Givings: The hopeless emptiness? Now, you've said it. Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness...

John is judged to be mentally unstable because his emotions are out front for the world to see. He never seems to have an unspoken thought and is in stark contrast to the buttoned down nature of those around him. He brings truth to a house of lies and is scorned for it. It is a terrific performance much like his recent turn in Take Shelter as another unstable outsider.
At times the cloying atmosphere of despair can make this film tough going. It is dark and there is no happy ending but that does not make it any less relevant of extremely well made. Between Mendes direction and the performances he draws from a very fine cast, this is drama of the highest order.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Flick of the Day: War Horse

Whisper it gently but its been a ho-hum few years for one of the great and most succesful directors of the modern era, Steven Spielberg. Of his body of work completed in the noughties, there have been more highlights (Munich, Catch Me if You Can, War of the Worlds & Minority Report) then lowlights (The Terminal, Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, AI) but only just. Indiana Jones in particular was just a very poor film. His latest film, an adaptation of the bestselling novel by English author Michael Morpurgo would seem exactly like the kind of story for Spielberg's talents to make the most of. It is a delight then to report that War Horse is exactly that and his finest film in years.
Opening before the Great War in sun dappled English countryside, exhibited in gorgeously detailed tracking shots by Spielberg, we are introduced to a horse called Joey at his birth, a thoroughbred foal born in Devon and raised to be sold at the local horse market. The scene of Joey's separation from his mother is heartbreaking and yet not played for sentimentality. Enter stage right Ted Narracott, a tenant farmer played by Peter Mullan, one of the great British acting talents of the last few years. A spendthrift and a drinker, Ted takes a fancy to this horse and bids more then he can afford to secure Joey. He outbids his local landlord Lyons played by David Thewlis  as a moustache twiddling villain. Ted's son Albert, played by Jeremy Irvine  in the central role, who is aware of Joey's potential is set the tasl of training his new horse to be a working farm horse. Together they form a bond  that is stronger then oak. Of course Lyons will have his revenge and threatens to throw the family off their farm unless the rent is paid but all is saved when Albert trains Joey to plough the fields and save the family farm. So far so good, but this is not a happy story and the outbreak of  the Great War brings ill tidings for both Albert and his simpatico horse. Joey is sold to the Army, specifically to dashing young cavalry officer Tom Hiddleston. A fundamentally decent man, he promises Albert he will look after Joey like his own and return him after the war. So begins an odyssey for both Albert and Joey as they seek to find each other once again and return home to Devon. Joey's journey takes him through bloody and disastrous cavalry charges, a pair of Germand deserters, the life of a sickly young French girl and her grandfather, before falling into the hands of the German artillery units who used horses to carry guns to the front while Albert's takes him to the trenches of the Somme and all of the horror that entails. In some spectacular filmmaking, Spielberg manages to document the horrors of the Great War through the eyes of a horse and creates some particularly affecting scenes.

The skill of a talented filmmaker really shows here. Spielberg is particularly adept at creating some striking visuals without being overly visceral in his depiction. As an example, in a very fine scene we view the death by firing squad of two deserters in a lonely field through the rotations of a windmill with the sails shielding us as the fatal shots are discharged. Yet in other scenes, we are not spared the horrors. It is a fine balance and one that Spielberg strikes well.

In this, he is blessed with a fine cast throughout. The cream of European acting talent is on show. Liam Cunningham plays a small but pivotal role in a deeply affecting scene as a British military surgeon. Benedict Cumberbatch  makes the most of an enjoyable role as a deluded cavalry officer who leads his men on a doomed charge and the always watchable Niels Arestrup who was so magnetic in last years Un Prophete appears as a French grandfather just trying to survive the war.

At the Irish premiere last night, Liam Cunningham noted that this is a sad film and it is that but ultimately what I took from the film were two things. Firstly, there is a strong bond between man and the animals they care for and work with and this really comes across in the film. Secondly, the sheer futility and stupidity of all sides in the First World War is deeply ingrained in this film. The human cost of that war is something I was very familiar with but the cost to nature was not something I was aware of. 500,000 horses died in the First World War. The level of cruelty which man is able to stoop to in his dealings with animals is oustripped perhaps only by his cruelty to his fellow man. This dychotomy between the obvious bond between man and beast and the level of cruelty shown is not one easily reconciled here or anywhere else. Ultimately though, there can be no creed or politics or human ideals worthy of such a cost to this planet and its inhabitants, human or otherwise.
A very fine film, perhaps the best of the year and surely a contender for an Oscar in the upcoming awards season. Spielberg's direction is superb with a deft touch missing from his recent work. A fine cast shine throughout including the oft forgotten Emily Watson  in another performance that surely marks her as an actress of the very highest order. The story is epic in scope and structure and yet ultimately never loses sight of the boy and his horse. A triumph.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Flick of The Day: The Artist

The silent cinema era produced works by artists like Chaplin and Keaton which are still beloved today, still funny today.This is conclusive proof, if it was needed, that great art and entertainment transcends technology and style. Be it the advent of sound, colour, Cinemascope, Technicolour, 3D (the first time), IMAX, digital effects, 3D (again), the basic ingredients of a decent film have remained the same. I was looking forward then to seeing The Artist, the much applauded hit from last year's Cannes festival and a silent film.
In 1927 Hollywood, Jean Dujardin  plays George Valentin, a matinee idol of the silent era just as the industry moves to talking films. While his marriage is far from perfect, he has an adoring public and a pet dog which steals every scene in the film. One day while attending the premier of his latest film, he meets a young chorus girl called Peppy Miller played by the delightful Berenice Bejo and falls for her. As the years pass, the silent era is surpassed by the talkies and Peppy becomes a big star while a scrambling George invests the last of his wealth in another silent picture, unwilling to change with the times. As their paths diverge, George's marriage disintegrates along with his fortune and he finds himself and his canine companion living on the margins. He is even forced to dispense with the services of his loyal chauffeur played by James Cromwell. Peppy however has not forgotten him and seeks him out but not before he tries to burn down in his apartment in a fine action set piece centred around the wonder dog. 
I didn't have any real expectations before viewing this and I can see why the idea of a silent film might turn off the average cinema goer but it would be a real loss as this is a masterful film combining the epic sweep of the silent era with modern humour and technique. It is a joy to watch writer and director Michel Hazanavicius tell a story without the use of dialogue. This is achieved with remarkable ease, marking  this as the work of a gifted film-maker. The silence never feels forced or overbearing and it never detracts from telling the story. The tale itself to me bore strong similarities to the Barbra Streisand version of A Star is Born from 1976 but then that story has been told on screen at least 3 times so far. It is a simple tale of loss and regret with a love story at its core. 
It is this love story which combined with comedic scenes carries the film to its conclusion. It is the kind of film that leaves you with a smile on your face. I couldn't complete this review without mention of the real star of the film, a dog named Uggie who without exaggeration manages to steal almost every scene in the film. He is at the centre of a very well acted set piece when George attempts to burn his house down and Uggie tries to attract help to save him. It is so well done, you will easily forget you are watching a silent film.
All in all, this film is a triumph. It manages to successfully pay homage to the silent era while remaining within the rigid boundaries of the form and telling an entertaining tale. It is funny, dramatic and heartwarming and is fully deserving of any rewards which come its way over the next few months.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Flick of The Day: Sweet Smell of Success

It is a well known truth that sometimes greatness is isn't immediately seen. So often in life, it is only with a second view that people see real talent and true achievement. Cinema is no different. Everyone can think of a film that was a failure upon its release only to be reappraised later, The Shawshank Redemption, Withnail & I and Kingdom of Heaven are obvious examples. Today's flick of the day, Sweet Smell of Success is another. One of the great noir pictures of the 1950's, it was an ignominious failure on release but over the years has come to be seen for what it is, a classic plain and simple.
Tony Curtis is a grasping and oily young press agent named Sydney Falco, a man who spends his nights listening,cajoling and schmoozing in the New York night scene on behalf of his clients. His business lives and dies by the items of gossip and innuendo he can place with the various newspaper columnists who can destroy a career with a single column and make it with an another. Sydney has fallen foul of the most powerful of them all, J.J. Hunsecker played by a brilliant Burt Lancaster. Hunsecker wields his power like a weapon, using it to beat down anyone who crosses him. This now includes Sydney who J.J. had inveigled into attempting to break up the relationship between J.J's sister and an up and coming jazz musician without success. He gives Falco a second chance but asks him to plant marijuana on the musician. How low is Falco prepared to go to please the malignant Hunsecker?
Lancaster is deliciously evil as the columnist without any scruples. One of the all time great cinema villains, the character was modelled on the powerful columnist Walter Winchell which drew his ire and garnered the film unfavourable reviews on its release. Hunsecker is dark and right wing and willing to go to any lengths to get what he wants. The dialogue sparks in short, staccato sentences with some great put downs.

J.J. Hunsecker: Mr. Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of 40 faces, not one - none too pretty, and all deceptive. You see that grin? That's the, eh, that's the Charming Street Urchin face. It's part of his helpless act: he throws himself upon your mercy. He's got a half-dozen faces for the ladies. But the one I like, the really cute one, is the quick, dependable chap. Nothing he won't do for you in a pinch - so he says. Mr. Falco, whom I did not invite to sit at this table tonight, is a hungry press agent, and fully up to all the tricks of his very slimy trade.

The back and forth between the two morally corrupt characters of Curtis and Lancaster is a joy to watch. The other star of the show is of course the shadows and light which colour the city at night. From the glitz and neon of the nightclubs and Broadway to the dimly lit after hours bars.
One of the last great New York noirs, the black and white photography is perfectly suited to the mood of the film which is decidedly downbeat and pessimistic. Hunsecker is not brought low despite his actions though Sydney does partially redeem himself by doing the right thing, proving that their are depths to which even a press agent will not sink.

J.J. Hunsecker: Harvey, I often wish I were dead and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.

A great dialogue driven script, a fine cast and an Elmer Bernstein score matched with stunning visuals of the city that never sleeps, this is a film that you really have to see. Directed with precision by British director Alexander Mackendrick who had already had quite a career making Ealing comedies like Whisky Galore! and The Ladykillers, this is an underrated film which has become even more relevant as the years go by foreshadowing the degeneration of the American newsmedia.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Flick of The Day: Margin Call

The financial crisis which began in the United States in 2008 and whose effect is still being felt throughout the world today, no more so than in Europe has been quite the boon to Hollywood. It was such a shocking collapse, particularly on Wall St that it has so many of the elements for great drama. On the whole though, cinema's various efforts at documenting the crisis have been a hit and miss affair. In terms of documentaries, Charles Ferguson's Inside Job stands out as the best account while the dramatisations have been a poor lot, ranging from the competent Too Big to Fail to the downright awful Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It is a delight then to see an independent film which is almost pitch perfect in its handling of what is a great story, today's flick of the day is Margin Call.
Directed by newcomer J.C. Chandor, Margin Call is set in an unnamed American investment bank just before the crisis begins to take shape documenting a 36 hour before a collapse. As the film opens, junior analysts Seth played by Penn Badgley and Peter played by an excellent Zachary Quinto are chatting to senior salesman Will Emerson, played by Paul Bettany in a big swinging dick mode while a dreaded Human Resources team walk the floor giving people the dreaded tap on the shoulder. One of those removed is Seth and Peter's boss Eric, played by the always excellent Stanley Tucci. Eric is to say the least surprised and angry about losing his job not least because he believes he has stumbled across something damaging on the companies books. Before he is removed from the building, he passes a USB key to Peter and asks him to investigate this further. Later that night, the eager beaver takes a look and realises that the bank is in serious trouble with Eric's model predicting that unless they shed some decidedly dodgy assets they will go bust. Panicked, Peter calls Seth and Will back into the office and before long his analysis is in the hands of Will's boss Sam, played by Kevin Spacey, channelling his inner Gordon Gekko. As the night wears on and the bank moves into crisis mode, the information moves up the chain of command to executives played by Simon Baker, Demi Moore and a scene stealing turn by Jeremy Irons. Each of them is left with a choice, do they attempt to get out now or go down fighting?
The really interesting aspect of this film is that it doesn't focus on the why? element of the financial crisis as has been the case in other films. This means that the audience is never bombarded with financial lingo and terminology. In fact, the problems are never explained to any great degree. We are merely treated to Bettany, Spacey et al looking shocked at a computer screen or a a piece of paper. It can be over done but this allows the film to focus on the moral questions of the banker's actions. Ultimately it boils down to will they choose to dump these assets on their clients and counterparties the next morning as the markets open? This is the real drama of the piece, how low will you go?

John Tuld: So you think we might have put a few people out of business today. That its all for naught. You've been doing that everyday for almost forty years Sam. And if this is all for naught then so is everything out there. Its just money; its made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It's not wrong. And it's certainly no different today than its ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, 37, 57, 84, 1901, 07, 29, 1937, 1974, 1987-Jesus, didn't that fuck up me up good-92, 97, 2000 and whatever we want to call this. It's all just the same thing over and over; we can't help ourselves. And you and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there's ever been. But the percentages-they stay exactly the same. 

Very loosely modelled on the demise of Lehman Brothers, it really could have been about any bank and there is much to enjoy if you like to see arrogant bankers speculating about each other's salary and sneering at the general public for their lack of understanding of the financial Armageddon about to hit.

Seth Bregman: Did you really make two and half million bucks last year? 
Will Emerson: Yeah... I did. 
Peter Sullivan: What do you do with all that money? 
Will Emerson: I don't know really. It goes pretty quick. 
Will Emerson: Well the tax man takes half of it up front. So now you got what... million and a quarter. Mortgage grabs another 300K, I gave 150 to my parents to live off, so now you got what? 
Peter Sullivan: Eight hundred. 
Will Emerson: I bought two cars last year for 150 total. Probably another 100 eating... 25 on clothes, put 400 away for a rainy day... 
Seth Bregman: Smart. 
Will Emerson: And what's that? 
Peter Sullivan: 125 left. 
Will Emerson: I spent 76,520 dollars on booze, dancers, and whores. 
Peter Sullivan: 76,520? 
Will Emerson: Yeah, kinda shocked me, although I was able to write most of it off as an entertainment expense!

A fine drama, this is a promising début from Chandor and he makes great use of an ensemble cast. It doesn't dwell on the causes of the crisis and the wider issues therein but concentrates on the human drama and is all the better for it. The back biting and infighting as the firm goes through its long night of the soul is entertaining and compelling viewing.

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