Monday, March 26, 2012

Flick of The Day: Casino

The relationship between director Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro goes back a long way and is perhaps one of the most fruitful in recent film history. Starting with Mean Streets in 1973 and including such classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and past flick of the day Goodfellas. Thus far their final and eight collaboration is today's flick of the day, Casino, an epic telling of the rise and fall of the Mafia in Las Vegas in the 1970's and 80's.
Based on a true story, Casino attempts over the course of nearly three hours to tell the life and times of three characters central to the story of the American Mafia in the Las Vegas casino industry. Robert De Niro is Ace Rothstein, a masterful gambler and tipster who after a successful career making money bookmaking for the mob is sent to Las Vegas to take over the running of their new prize, the Teamsters funded Tangiers Casino. Joe Pesci is Nicky Santoro, a vicious thug with an eye for making money who is sent to Vegas to keep Ace safe. Finally there is Sharon Stone, as the coked out hooker Ginger McKenna, Ace's partner of choice and a woman with little or no redeeming features and a lust for money and jewels. In comparison to the other two, Ace is a model citizen by Vegas standards and out to run a fair game and make the Tangiers the best house in town. Shot with the feel of a docu-drama, although perhaps the best acted one ever, it gives the film the feeling of one long anecdote about the city. The film is littered with voice-over dialogue as Ace and Nicky feel their way first to success before the inevitable overreach and ultimately a bloody and disastrous end. 
On its release in 1995 hopes were high for Casino bringing together as it did the team that had created Goodfellas in 1990, still one of the all time great gangster pictures. While this is not in the same league as that film, it has moments of genuine greatness. An explosive (literally) opening credits set the scene perfectly and promise much. It as much about Vegas in the 70's as it is about the characters and again I come back to the docu-drama feel. There is just so much detail of the period packed in that it can be at times overwhelming. Roughly the opening 90 minutes detail the rise to power of Ace and Nicky with Ace building the biggest and best casino in town and Nicky taking an iron grip of the underbelly of the city while the second half details the downfall as the FBI and the gaming authorities crack down. It is with typical Scorsese flair that the minutiae of  how the mob skimmed money out of a supposedly legitimate business are played out.
While De Niro and Pesci give typically bravura performances and Stone achieves the dubious honour of being perhaps the most annoying screen character of all time, ultimately this doesn't satisfy in the same manner as some of their earlier collaborations. Perhaps it is just a case of excess in every area of the film. It is more violent than Goodfellas or Taxi Driver to a sometimes shocking degree, it carries an epic running length of 3 hours and a level of detail in its examination of a period in Vegas history. I suppose I am saying it is less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps that is too negative because when the film is at its best, it is very good indeed. It just isn't the classic it promised to be.
All in all, a very entertaining piece of cinema history containing perhaps the last collaboration between two of the all time greats. It perfectly captures a time and a place while the period costumes and sets are easy on the eye, the kind of technically gifted film-making that Scorsese is the master of. Each of the leads captures their characters to a tee and if ultimately it isn't a classic, it is an enjoyable 3 hours.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Flick of The Day: La Haine / Hate

Bursting onto the scene in 1995 with today's flick of the day, La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz was the next big thing in French cinema compared perhaps stupidly in hindsight to Spike Lee. La Haine was a controversial film on it's release dealing as it does with issues of race, violence and the class divide in modern France  and went on to win the Best Director prize at Cannes. This early promise has yielded mixed results at best with the risible Halle Berry vehicle Gothika and the perhaps best forgotten Vin Diesel starring Babylon A.D being the highlights.
La Haine documents a day in the life of three disaffected youths from differing backgrounds in the grim Paris banlieues. Vinz, played by Vincent Cassel perhaps the best French actor of his generation, is Jewish and a hot head spoiling for a fight with the police. Hubert, played by Hubert Kounde is black and a promising boxer who is the opposite of Vinz and tries to preach the path of least resistance. In the middle of these is Said, played by Said Taghmaoui, who spends his time keeping them apart. Jobless and penniless and without prospects of either, they spend their days hanging around the housing estate while at night engaging in skirmishes with the local police. As the film opens, another youth has been seriously injured by police in a riot. With tensions high on the estate and the police at breaking point, a cop loses his weapon in the chaos and it falls into the hands of one of our three  friends. As the day turns into night, we seem set for tragedy on the streets.
Shot in a stark black and white, this is a worryingly relevant film even today. The terminal decline of the Paris banlieues has if anything accelerated and the problems of race and the class system are as divisive as ever. As I write this, the French police are currently attempting to capture a man accused of murdering 6 people of ethnic origins in a hate crime and in the upcoming French elections, immigration will be a focus of attention in a country where the national front routinely wins a quarter of the vote. The use of black and white photography by Kassovitz highlights that the divide is not so much on ethnic grounds as it between the haves and have nots. Vinz, Hubert and Said are a Jew, an African and a Muslim. Not obvious friends if society is to be believed and yet they are joined by their struggles to escape the Paris slums.

Hubert: Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good... so far so good... so far so good. How you fall doesn't matter. It's how you land!

Kassovitz shows a side of Paris that is not on any tourist trail. The Eiffel tower is glimpsed only in the distance and any interaction with the cultural centre only reinforces the fact that these guys are outsiders.
At the time, La Haine was compared to the early work of Spike Lee in terms of its angry social conscience. Perhaps a better comparison would be to some of the New York films of Martin Scorsese in terms of capturing a Zeitgeist such as Taxi Driver and Bringing out the Dead. While perhaps inspired by these films, it is a work of true originality and at times brutal truth. It avoids the clichés of "honour in the hood" seen in American films such as John Singleton's Boyz N The Hood.
An important film that still has the power to shock even 17 years after its release, La Haine is a must see. It is as Paris as you haven't seen it and is as relevant a portrait of the city today as it was on release. It introduced the world to Vincent Cassel who would go on to be perhaps the biggest star in French cinema today while Hubert Kounde and Said Taghmaoui would build strong careers. Well worth a viewing.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Flick of The Day: Manhunter

Red Dragon, the Thomas Harris novel released in 1981 was the first to include his brilliantly disturbing creation Dr Hannibal Lecter. After Anthony Hopkins made the role his own with Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, there have been various attempts to milk more money from the franchise with more adaptations including  a glossy 2002 adaptation of Red Dragon directed by Brett Ratner. However, a far more nuanced and thrilling approach was taken way back in 1986 when Michael Mann introduced the world to Dr Lecter with today's flick of the day Manhunter.
The film opens with  a chilling scene, we are introduced to the Tooth Fairy killer Francis Dollarhyde played by the great character actor Tom Noonan as he stalks another family, moving quietly through a house flash light in hand as the camera pans. Soon thereafter we meet Will Graham, played by William Petersen, a brilliant criminal profiler who has recently retired to a life on the beach with his young family after cracking on the job after catching Dr Lecter. Into this idyll steps Will's old FBI colleague Jack Crawford, played by a gruff Dennis Farina, who  pleads with Will to come back and help catch the Tooth Fairy. Before long Will is hot on the trail, using his ability to get inside the mind to track the killer including consulting with imprisoned Hannibal, played with an eerie calm by Brian Cox in a much different characterisation to that of Hopkins 5 years later. Adding to Will's difficulties are a tabloid reporter out for self-aggrandizement and Hannibal's attempts to seek revenge from behind bars.
Manhunter was a critical success but a commercial failure upon its release but its difficult to see why having as it does all the elements of great suspense film-making. Perhaps inevitably compared to Ratner's later Hopkins based adaptation, it is a far superior film. Michael Mann has always been a director with an eye for style and this film exudes it. Each scene makes use of a glorious pallet of colours and together with Mann's editing and framing creates a tension that allows the actors to concentrate on performance. Cox's Lecter revels in his dislike for Will Graham a man he despises simply for having caught him, he doesn't play with Graham in the same manner as Hopkins in Red Dragon. Tom Noonan's Francis Dollarhyde is a chillingly plausible individual, the kind of quiet individual who lives on the margins of society.
The stylization marks this as an 80's film from the beginning and this has served to date the film somewhat but yet gives it a visual cache in much the same manner as other films of the period such as Brian De Palma's Scarface

Will Graham: I know that I'm not smarter than you. 
Doctor Hannibal Lecktor: Then how did you catch me? 
Will Graham: You had disadvantages. 
Doctor Hannibal Lecktor: What disadvantages? 
Will Graham: You're insane.

Colour is a very important part of the film with scenes involving Will and his wife making use of a "romantic blue"  while a green hue with elements of purple is used for the more menacing scenes usually involving Dollarhyde while Lecter's scenes are dominated by the white background. Mann also makes use of different frame rates to engage the audience and create tension. The climax of the film alternately flicks between 24, 36, 72 and 90 frames per second.
Given its failure upon release, Manhunter has come to be seen as somewhat of a cult movie which is to do it a disservice. It is the equal of The Silence of the Lambs in terms of style and performance and deserves to be seen as such. While comparisons are invidious and so open to opinion, it is far superior to Brett Ratner's later adaptation and very worthy of a second viewing.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Flick of The Day: Game Change

The American television network HBO, in addition to its output of cutting edge drama has recently developed a neat sideline in Zeitgeist capturing film feature's looking at various aspects of recent American history. Following on from 2008's Recount which examined the aftermath of the US state of Florida turning into Nicaragua after the 2000 Presidential Election and last year's star laden look at the financial crisis Too Big to Fail, comes Game Change. An adaptation of the book of the same name, it looks at the fateful decision to choose Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate. 
HBO seems to have the style of these political drama's down to a tee and there is much here in style and scope that would be familiar from their previous efforts. Short takes and an emphasis on telling the facts as they are. The film opens with John McCain, played by Ed Harris in a word perfect turn and his campaign manager Steve Schmidt played by the always reliable Woody Harrelson debating how they can catch the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that is Barack Obama. After a very brief search, they alight upon an obscure Governor of Alaska. With time tight before a nominee must be announced, Schmidt does not properly vet Palin. Julianne Moore inhabits the role of Sarah Palin in a performance that out-Tina Fey's Tina Fey showing her for perhaps what she really is. An intellectually limited but passionate individual who can make a connection with those of a similar type. The bulk of the movie is then made up of documenting how quickly the decision to choose Palin goes awry. Perhaps anecdotes of her legendary lack of general knowledge have been over done but there is till much to squirm at in the various coaching sessions and interviews that highlight her inadequacy. The realisation that they have made the wrong choice causes a rethink in the campaign. As this general malaise sets in, Palin herself becomes unable to deal with the pressure and we are led to belief comes close to mental collapse. However she regroups and realises that by sticking to her strengths and being difficult she is more than a match for the campaign staff. From then on, Palin is very much a rogue agent out for her own career post the election with its inevitable defeat for the centrist McCain.
Ultimately this is an entertaining portrayal of one of the iconic American election campaigns of our times. Moore and Ed Harris give startlingly life like portrayals of their characters without veering too much into imitation. Perhaps its main failing is to attempt to shoe horn too much detail into a two hour running time though there is a need to tell something new. Given this, they do make a bold decision to posit the idea that Palin is mentally unstable.
As regards its accuracy as a film, both candidates have accused it and the book upon which it is based of being a false narrative though against this, Steve Schmidt portrayed by Harrelson has said it is an accurate reflection of events. 
All in all, this is an entertaining romp through an interesting topic led by a perfectly cast group of American character actors combined with the high production values typical of a HBO production. While it carries the slur of being a TV movie, it is a decent political drama worthy of any cinema. Well worth a look.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Flick of The Day: Carancho / Vulture

The recent Best Picture Oscar win for Michel Hazanavicius' critically lauded The Artist highlights the relative strength of cinema produced outside America at the moment. Increasingly over the last decade, I have been struck by how often in a given year the most challenging and entertaining pictures are those produced outside the mainstream Hollywood system. Not necessarily foreign language pictures,  just quality genre cinema made for au audience willing to think, cinema that doesn't feed me plot points like lines on a powerpoint presentation. The Lives of Others, A Prophet and The Secret in Their Eyes would stand out as some of the best work of the decade. Today's flick of the day, Carancho, is another fine film starring Ricardo Darin perhaps best known outside of Argentina for his work in The Secret in Their Eyes. Premièring at the Cannes festival in 2010, it is only now reaching Irish cinemas.
The film opens by noting that car accidents have reached epidemic levels in Argentina and that as the number of accidents have risen so have the claims for damages. Ricardo Darin is Sosa, a disgraced former attorney who now makes his living by ambulance chasing and signing up victims for a shady operation called the foundation who pocket most of the record compensation and stiff the injured parties. While out one night working the scene of a fresh carnage, he meets a pretty young doctor named Lujan played by Martina Gusman. They form a bond amid the ups and downs of nigh time Buenos Aires perhaps driven by Lujan's dependency on prescription drugs.  Lujan soon finds out that it is no accident that Sosa is present at all of these accidents and that his is a far murkier world than expected with tragic consequences for both.
Directed by Pablo Trapero, who has previous success as Cannes with films such as 2002's El bonaerense, this is a suspenseful and dark look into the seamier side of life in modern Buenos Aires. Packed with emotional punch and surging with the raw energy of the streets, this is an excellent thriller. While not as good as some of Trapero's earlier work, it is still from the top draw. 
Ricardo Darin gives another assured performance as the conflicted Sosa. While not a bad man at heart, he is prepared to do what it takes to win back his license to practice law even if that means causing accidents for profit. That said, he is not unfeeling and his actions weight on him as the film goes on. Martina Gusman's Lujan offers him a respite from the squalor and the hope that perhaps they can both escape their current lives.
All in all, this is a worthy addition to the genre and a genuine insight into a side of Argentina that will be new to most. A fine script is given weight by some genuinely talented actors. Well worth a look.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Flick of The Day: City Island

Low key comedies about working class families are not the most saleable of commodities at the modern box office. Far too much effort is required on the part of the studio to make a good one that it is far easier to commission another comic book adaptation or an Adam Sandler film. Today's flick of the day, City Island is just such a rarity and all the better for it. A tale of dysfunction in an idyllic area of New York, it is a winner on all counts.
Andy Garcia is Vince Rizzo, a Bronx family patriarch and  prison guard who harbours dreams of becoming an actor. He hides these dreams and a few other secrets from his equally frustrated wife Joyce played by Julianna Margulies. The film's storyline and its humour are both derived from the various secrets they and the rest of the family hide from each other. Both smoke yet do so in secret. Their academically gifted daughter Vivian secretly moonlights as a stripper while their teenage son hides a fetish for large women. Into this farce steps the biggest secret of the lot. Vince has a son from a previous relationship, Tony who after a fashion finds himself a prisoner in Vince's prison. Eligible for parole if a family member takes him in, Vince brings Tony home to the rambling house on the shoreline of City Island. As the various family secrets work themselves out, the humour flows in a naturalistic manner.
The real joy of this film is the natural warmth between the characters and the well drawn nature of their interactions. Andy Garcia excels as the family man trying to hide his past while also doing the right thing. His character is both believable and compelling and his arguments with his wife are as funny as they are true. Margulies gives as good as she gets in her role as the long suffering mother while the various children make the best of their roles.
Ultimately this is charmingly old school in its approach to rounding out the edges of the various secrets. Everything works out as expected though it is perhaps slightly too smooth how Vince's hopes of an acting career take such a skyward trajectory at such short notice. The only other downside is perhaps the underwritten roles of Alan Arkin as Vince's acting coach and Emily Mortimer as a friend aware of his dream. That said some of the best elements of this farce of misunderstandings come from Joyce's belief that Vince is having an affair.
All in all, an enjoyable small family comedy with enough dark elements to keep the audience entertained. The setting of City Island is idyllic and the cast well chosen for their roles. Andy Garcia is particularly strong as the patriarch caught between his past and doing the right thing. Well worth a look on an otherwise cloudy day.

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