Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Flick of the Day: Annie Hall

Romantic comedy is not a genre I often find myself enjoying but when it comes to Woody Allen, I make an exception. Considered his breakthrough film, Annie Hall is a romantic comedy with a difference. It tells the story of the failure of a relationship with a seriousness that heretofore had not been seen in Allen's work while retaining his natural humour.
Allen plays a version of himself as comedian Alvy Singer who from the opening scene explains that his relationship with Annie, played by Diane Keaton, ended one year ago. The film then proceeds to tell the story of the rise and fall of their relationship through a series of vignettes. Singer is a man obsessed with the banalities of life and a need to see anti-Semitism in anyone who disagrees him.  Where he is an obsessive New York liberal, Annie is a free spirit from Wisconsin with a passion for photography. We gradually learn of Alvie's previous failed relationships and sexual failures and find that perhaps Annie is the cure for his neurosis. Ultimately the ups and downs of their relationship allow Allen to engage in musings on his favourite topics like therapy, the absurd oddities of the dating scene and the human condition while perfectly skewering the kind of upper east-side intellectuals that seem to populate Allen's films. 
Allen has never been better as an actor then in the role of Alvie, perhaps because it is almost autobiographical in tone. That said perhaps the best sequences in the film are those where Allen is taking his keen and acerbic eye to American life in the 1970's. The scene where he contrasts the WASPish preoccupations of Annie's family with his own Brooklyn Jewish roots is still hilarious today. It is this humour and the one liners which have ensured that the film hasn't become dated and still feels relevant today though the musings and cultural references have moved on. When the couple take a trip to California, Allen takes his considerable wit to skewering the kind of fake personalities and faux mysticism that populate La-la land.

        [a guest is calling his meditation guruParty guest: Hello? I forgot my mantra.  

There is a realism at the core of the film which makes it seem more vital and true. In any other film, Annie and Alvie would waltz off into the sunset. Here, though they seem perfect for each other first it is the little flaws and obsessions in their personality which eventually drive them apart. It is typically condescending of normal Hollywood fare to attempt to assure us all that everything will work out in the end, that is not Allen's way and it isn't true to real life. Relationships have their ups and downs and sometimes they end.
Alvy Singer: Don't you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.
A landmark film for romantic comedies, it introduced a new level of intelligence to the genre and set Woody Allen on the path to new found acceptance outside of New York and in the great cinema going public of middle America. It was also the first of three films in a row to star Diane Keaton culminating in perhaps Allen's best work Manhattan in 1979. Annie Hall beat out stiff competition from The Goodbye Girl and Star Wars to win the Best Picture Oscar for 1977.
Alvy Singer: Lyndon Johnson is a politician, you know the ethics those guys have. It's like a notch underneath child molester.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Flick of the Day: The Dark Knight Rises

For better or worse, comic book adaptations have largely come to dominate the list of Summer box office titans over the last decade since the release of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man in 2002. This film, an adaptation of perhaps the most commercial of the comic book superheroes spawned two sequels and even a reboot this Summer. Perhaps an unexpected consequence of its success was to set off somewhat of an arms race between the two publishing empires Marvel and DC who have come to dominate the genre. Each Summer since the year of Spidey, there has been at least one major release from the pair. From the awful (Daredevil, Hulk) to the interesting (Iron Man, X-Men), Marvel has been the more dominant of the two with a four year cycle of films culminating in this Summer's tent pole release Avengers Assemble. Perhaps the last laugh may go to DC Comics who have garnered critical acclaim for Christopher Nolan's series of Batman films culminating in today's flick of the day and last in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.
Perhaps the most pleasing element of Nolan's approach to the Batman character has been the intellectual legitimacy which he has garnered for the genre and for his own work. Nolan's Batman is an adult creation who endures in a relentlessly downbeat Gotham, and a world away from the witty quips of an Iron Man or other more child friendly creations. After the success of the previous instalments in the series 2005's Batman Begins and the Heath Ledger dominated The Dark Knight in 2008, hopes were unnaturally high amongst the near-rabid fan base. 
Opening 8 years after the events of the previous film, we find ourselves in a much changed Gotham. Thanks to the Harvey Dent Act, crime has dropped to an all time low under the auspices of Commissioner Gordon, played again by the great Gary Oldman. Meanwhile Bruce Wayne has retired into seclusion, a Howard Hughes like tragic figure who hides in the shadows of his vast mansion while his Batman alter ego has not been seen since the death of Dent at the end of the previous film and has taken the blame accordingly. However there is a storm brewing in the shadows of Gotham, a mysterious cat burglar named Selina Kyle is making herself known. Kyle is played by the surprisingly adept Anne Hathaway. Also stepping into the complacent Gotham is the terrorist Bane played by a bulked up Tom Hardy. Bane is the very antithesis of Bruce Wayne's moral code,a masked man who wishes to see Gotham brought to its very knees and is introduced to us in a spectacular opening scene. The cast is rounded out by the ever reliable Michael Caine reprising his role as Alfred and Joseph Gordon Levitt as a young police officer with an independent streak while Marion Cotillard is underused as a wealthy social campaigner.
Without delving too deeply into the plot, suffice as to say Christian Bale's mournful Bruce Wayne is forced to don the black cape once more to defend the city once more but will he still be up to it or will Bane prove too much for him? The films moves from one stand out scene to another while still managing to detail the moral turmoil at the heart of the tale.
Despite coming in at an ass numbing 2 hours and 45 minutes, the film doesn't seem to lag at least I never felt my mind wandering. There is much to enjoy here from a visual perspective and as with so much of Nolan's best work, there is a subtle subtext at work here. Bane appears to be less the kind of unthinking Lucifer that was Ledger's Joker and more of a crusading villain attempting to return Gotham to its own year zero. There are some interesting references to corrupt bankers and the evils of wealth but they are not fully followed through and merely exist to hang Bane's psyche on.
Again without giving anything away, the ending is an enjoyable piece of storytelling which ties up the looses ends nicely while delivering the kind of emotional punch and what if analysis seen in Nolan's Inception. The wide and varied cast deliver in their respective roles with a special mention for Michael Caine, who as Alfred is the moral core of the film attempting to rein in Bruce's need to satisfy and save. Caine will be 80 next March and is still delivering performances that wow. As noted, Marion Cotillard is largely underdeveloped given her pivotal role in the film though perhaps this was intentional. Nolan's direction is never heavy handed  and hits all the right notes in the set-pieces while the score from Hans Zimmer serves to enhance the action with its terrible Sturm und Drang giving the piece an epic feel. And the film is epic if nothing else, the breadth of the story and the moral complexity of the characters is unlike anything previously attempted in a comic book adaptation. 
While not hitting the heights of perfection which so many fans had unreasonably hoped for, this is a strong ending for Nolan's trilogy and nicely finishes out the tale which began uncertainly in 2005. Bale is undoubtedly the best actor to have taken on the role of Batman and his broody intensity was well matched with Nolan's attempts to take the character down the dark road to which it is best suited. Arguably Nolan's best work has been outside of Batman with Inception and The Illusionist. I look forward to his next work. So then in conclusion, not perfect but a very enjoyable film all the same.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Flick of The Day: Killer Joe

The last time American director William Friedkin had a critically acclaimed film, Reagan was in the White House. One of the defining talents of the 70's new wave, he made perhaps his best film with 1971's gritty crime drama The French Connection and followed up with The Excorcist. He made his first misstep with 1977's ill advised remake of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear bizarrely renamed Sorcerer. It was largely down hill from there with 1980's Cruising achieving legendary status only as the film which almost ruined Al Pacino's career. Today's flick of the day, Killer Joe, an adaptation of a play by Tracy Letts, marks the first career high point in many years.
A desperately down at heel white trash drug dealer in Texas, Chris played by a surprisingly good Emile Hirsch, comes up with a plan to off his estranged mother to claim her $50k life insurance policy. Along with his delightfully stupid father Ansel, played by a brilliant Thomas Haden Church, he makes contact with Joe Cooper. Cooper played by Matthew McConaughey, is a Dallas cop with a nice sideline in contract killing. Joe's terms are simple, he needs $25k to remove Chris' mother from the picture. Unfortunately Chris and Ansel are short of cash and come to an agreement whereby the decidedly creepy Joe can date his sister Dottie. Of course as is the way with these things, once they let Joe into their lives, he cannot easily be gotten rid of. Dottie seems to exist in her own little world while Chris money problems quickly spiral out of control. A deeply twisted tale, the films meanders to its shocking denouement. You may never look at a piece of KFC again.
An adaptation of a play, the film betrays its source material in its reliance on dialogue heavy scenes but transcends this with some brilliant visual touches. From the opening scene, the film sets out on a bizarre twisted path where anything can happen. Packed with the kind of graphic violence and nudity associated with 70's exploitation cinema, this is an enjoyable trip.
This kind of Southern Gothic cinema relies on good acting not to seem too goofy and in this it delivers in spades. Thomas Haden Church gives his best performance since Sideways, as the amusingly dopey Ansel who avoids conflict in favour of zoning out in front of the television , beer in hand. Matthew McConaughey bucks the trend of an entire career by actually putting in a genuinely worthy performance. Perhaps if he can finally put his back catalogue of romantic comedy's, he can finally be taken seriously as a talented actor.He imbues the character of Joe with an indefinable malice which can strike out at any time.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the film is the dark black humour which runs through it. At the most grotesque moments, humour slips in and leavens proceedings. This comedy carries the film through to its twist filled ending. While not a film which will appeal to all, this is a welcome return to form for Friedkin, perhaps his best work for two decades. It's dark and funny and filled with some wonderfully out there characters. I enjoyed it for its sheer crassness perhaps you will too.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Flick of the Day: The Burbs

The cinema of your youth can retain a powerful hold over your imagination even years later. For a younger me, there was nothing better than The Goonies or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or today's flick of the day The Burbs. I think their appeal lay in a sense of adventure and a touch of danger which appeals to all children. The Burbs, directed by Joe Dante is an over the top satire on the idle speculation which can grip a suburban cul de sac.
Tom Hanks, playing one of the many comedic roles which were his bread and better in the early part of his career, is Ray Peterson, an average suburbanite on a week off from work. With little to do, he spends his days hanging out with his dim witted but paranoid neighbour Art played by Rick Ducommun. Together with  their other neighbours, an ex-military man played by Bruce Dern and layabout stoner Ricky played by Corey Feldman, he quickly develops an obsession with the new neighbours who have moved in next door, the Klopeks. To say the least the Klopeks are odd, coming and going at all hours of the night while loud noises emanate from the basement of their decrepit house however are they the axe-wielding murderers Ray imagines them to be?
It is easy to forget how could Hanks was at comedy given the Oscar laden career that came afterwards in more serious roles. He brings a likeable charm to the role of Ray. This could be your street, well it could be were it not for the out-sized personalities that inhabit it. Ray aside, the neighbourhood is populated by the familiar tropes of American suburbia. That's not to say they aren't funny, but the film relies more on its charm than the kind of off-kilter humour which Dante perfected in his earlier effort Gremlins. 

Art: I think the message to, uh, psychos, fanatics, murderers, nutcases all over the world is, uh, "do not mess with suburbanites". Because, uh, frankly we're just not gonna take it any more. Ya know, we're not gonna be content to look after our lawns and wax our cars, paint out houses. We're out to get them, Don, we are out to get them. 
The paranoid humour is played for full effect when it comes to the Klopeks. They are creepy well drawn oddballs played by familiar faces like Henry Gibson and to a child appeared genuinely menacing.
 After a fashion, the film moves to its inevitable ending where the quiet townsfolk take the law into their own hands. Are they right or have they fatally misjudged their new neighbours? It's fun for what it is and still remains an enjoyable romp for my adult self.
If their is a weakness in the film, it is that it makes little or no effort to develop some of the roles beyond a single dimension. Carrie Fisher is criminally underused as Hanks nagging wife. Perhaps the oddest thing about that is the idea of Carrie Fisher playing the wife of Tom Hanks, whether due to the unfairness of gender politics or not, can you imagine an actress of a similar age being cast opposite Hanks today?
All in all, this is a decent 80's comedy that relies more on charm than laughter to carry itself. It has a fine cast of comedy actors including a star turn from Tom Hanks that hints at the depth of talent that would come to the fore in the early 90's. Still worth a go today.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Flick of the Day: The King of Marvin Gardens

The rise and fall of Bob Rafelson's BBS Productions is the story of 1970's American cinema. At the vanguard of the movement to bring smart, literate cinema to the American mainstream, it quickly flamed out but in it short life, it left some genuinely ground breaking work such as Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show and today's flick of the day The King of Marvin Gardens. The story of BBS is documented in Peter Biskind's excellent account of 70's cinema Easy Riders & Raging Bulls however it was the failure of Marvin Gardens which dragged BBS down and marked a creative limit for how far mainstream audiences were prepared to follow a new generation of film-makers that were to blossom later in the decade.
A relentlessly downbeat look at the disillusionment with society of those on the margins, the film opens with a depressive radio DJ, David Staebler played by a reserved Jack Nicholson, who spends his days monologuing philosophy on his show in Philadelphia while looking after his aged grandfather. One day out of the blue, he gets a call from his estranged brother Jason, a manic con-man played by Bruce Dern who urges David to come to Atlantic City for his latest get rich quick scheme. Arriving to a wintry and decaying city that is long past its heyday and long before its rebirth as the town that gambling owns, he meets Jason's two accomplices, an ageing beauty queen named Sally played by Ellen Burstyn and her stepdaughter Jessica. David quickly realizes that Jason's plans are pie in the sky and tries to talk some sense into him but neither he nor the women in his life are listening leading to a tragic outcome for all.
Coming off a series of failures, BBS Productions was desperate for Marvin Gardens to be a hit and on paper it seemed a sure thing. It re-teamed the star and director of 1970's surprise hit Five Easy Pieces and had a fine cast including Ellen Burstyn fresh from an Oscar nomination the previous year. However, this dark and at times bizarre tale of urban alienation was too much for even the enlightened audience it was aimed at. In retrospect it is not a bad film and despite an initial feeling that the two male leads Nicholson and Dern should switch roles, they do deliver strong performances with Dern excelling as the extrovert con-man and Nicholson showing his range as the permanently depressed DJ. The gritty realism of Laszlo Kovacs cinematography gives the off-season Atlantic City a dark beauty and highlights both the decay of the city and the isolation of the characters.
The real emotional heart of the film is that each of these characters apart from David places money and fame above personal relationships and each are damaged individuals because of it.
Jason Staebler: You notice how it's Monopoly out there? Remember Boardwalk, Park Place, Marvin Gardens? 
David Staebler: Go directly to jail? 
Jason Staebler: Well, that's me. Don't pass go, don't collect $200. 
While not one of the all time greats, it is still an affecting and hard hitting drama of human relationships. Nicholson's David is as emotionally reserved as Dern's Jason is out there and the various bizarre scenarios they find themselves in merely highlight this emotional emptiness in their lives due to the focus on money.
All in all, this is a dark and downbeat film with an ending that will leave you feeling ill at ease. That said, there are some fine performances from the leads and the cinematography makes the most of the wintry setting of a depressed Atlantic City. Nicholson's career would go on to bigger and better pictures but he shows real range as the dour David while Bruce Dern makes the most of one of his better roles in the 70's. A touchstone for where the decade went in terms of cinema and a historically important film.

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