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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