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.

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