Saturday, September 14, 2013

Flick of the Day: Jurassic Park

When I was 7 years old, in the summer of 1993, I was brought to the cinema to see a new film. Unlike today, I knew absolutely nothing about what I was about to see. As one gets older, very few things surprise you on the silver screen. You become overpowered with the amount of previews and reviews and blogs and advertising spots to such an extent that you are never surprised by what you see in the cinema and very often have built up your own expectations to such an extent that the film can never live up to it. What made that film I saw in the Forum Cinema in Glasthule so exciting was that I had no expectations, I hadn't read the book or seen the trailer. That kind of experience is something that sadly I cannot relive again and am unlikely to experience again. However, what I can do is re-watch that film and experience the excitement once more of entering Jurassic Park.
On a stormy night in some remote jungle location, a team of workers and security personnel are delivering some unseen creature to its new enclosure. A terrifying accident occurs and a worker is killed. John Hammond, played by the elder statesman Richard Attenborough,  the visionary showman and founder of InGen is forced to bring in outside advisers for his new theme park. This is a park unlike any that have come before. This is a park filled with animals that have not existed on Earth for 65 million years. Hammond invites the gruff but brilliant palaeontologist Dr. Alan Grant, played by the always excellent Sam Neill, and  palaeobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler, played by Laura Dern. Along for the weekend are Jeff Goldblum's oddball mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm, an oily lawyer named Gennaro and Hammond's grandchildren Lex and Tim. The grand scale of Hammond's vision soon becomes apparent and how through the wonder of scientific hokum they have managed to recreate living, breathing dinosaurs on a tropical island off the coast of Costa Rica, Isla Nublar. Were this just a trip to the zoo, albeit a quite magical and dangerous zoo, it would not be half as entertaining as it is. The arrival of a tropical storm, as they are wont to do on tropical islands, combined with sundry errors on the part of Hammond's team of wizard like geneticists leads to the inevitable outbreak of chaos. What follows is a hugely entertaining game of survival as the visitors to park seek to escape with their lives.
Given how much cinema has become overrun with their usage, it is easy to forget how much of a novelty the CGI effects used in Jurassic Park were upon its release 20 years ago. It was only true judicious use of this ground-breaking technology combined with life-sized animatronics that Steven Spielberg was able to deliver on the vision of Crichton's best-selling science fiction adventure. Looking back now, the CGI hasn't dated horribly and still looks impressive while Stan Winston's animatronic creations help give the various dinosaurs character as they run amok. The scene involving the raptors on the loose in the kitchen is still as thrilling as it always was.
Given the visual hoopla on display, it would be easy to fall into the trap so many disaster movies fall into of casting shall we say sub-par performers in the leading roles. I am thinking here of some of the cast of bridge trolls that populate the god-awful 1974 Charlton Heston starring Earthquake (Tagline "When The Big One Finally Hits L.A."). Spielberg thankfully fills the cast with some fine actors. Sam Neill, perhaps the finest antipodean talent of a very talented generation of actors, is superb as the rock around which the cast is built. Laura Dern has since gone on to develop a fine career as character actor and Dicky Attenborough brings gravitas as he always did. There is even an arm-tingling performance from Samuel L. Jackson and a deliciously slimy turn from Wayne Knight as the duplicitous Dennis Nedry. Jeff Goldbum remains one of my favourite actors to this day and he has great fun playing the wacky Malcolm.
The summer blockbuster has changed immeasurably in many ways since Spielberg invented the genre with Jaws in 1975 and in many ways for the worse. Gone are the days when films need to be based off anything as substantial as a best-selling book. I think the nadir has to be basing a film on a theme park ride but who am I to judge? In any case, Jurassic Park still stands out today for its technical prowess and lashings of adventure. Why not watch it once more, luxuriate in the excitement of your youth? I know I will.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Flick of The Day: Children of Men

I've often thought it funny or at least remarkable that the cinematic vision of the future encountered in so many science fiction films is a dystopian one. Think of the vast cityscape of Blade Runner or the dark streets of Tokyo in Akira or the decaying hedonism of Rian Johnson's recent film Looper, all visions of the future that are a touch nightmarish. It is a rare enough thing to see a film set in the future where everything is better than it is now, perhaps indicative of the natural cynicism of film-makers or indeed of the world we currently live in and the direction of the human race. Suffice as to say today's flick of the day is just as dystopian but in the hands of Alfonso Cuaron becomes so much more than that.
It is the year 2027 and there have been no new human births for 18 years. The human race's hegemony over planet earth is in its final days and the world has descended into chaos. Great Britain remains as a last stalwart against the tide but has become a hellish police state where all immigrants are herded into camps. Clive Owen is Theo, a cynical civil servant and cog in the wheels of the state. Once upon a time he was an activist but has become embittered since the death of his son. He spends his days drinking too much and gambling as a means of passing the time. He visits his ageing hippy friend Jasper, played by an excellent Michael Caine, as a means of getting away from things. He is approached by his former wife Julian, played by Julianne Moore, who has become a member of terrorist group called the Fishes that seek to liberate immigrants with an offer. In return for cash, he agrees to help them transport a young girl to the coast so that she can be picked up by the Human Project, a near mythical scientific group based in the Azores. Of course, all is not as it seems and the young girl holds a secret with the potential to bring redemption to the whole human race. A secret that men will kill for and which Theo will have to risk his life to protect.
There are few bleaker visions of the earth's future than Cuaron's dark stylised take on PD James 1992 book. London is a city filled with despair for the masses but with tiny enclaves of great wealth. In one particularly well executed scene, Theo views the squalor of the city from the safe confines of a Rolls Royce before arriving at the walled splendour of St James Park all set to the tune of King Crimson. This is a London where terrorist bombings are a part of daily life and life itself has become a grim march to the death reminiscent of Orwell's 1984.
The visuals are often stunning and yet unlike so many films set in the future, it doesn't attempt to overreach in terms of the available technology. The cars and computers are slightly better but combined with the grime and dust which covers everything it leaves you with the feeling that man has given up on technology as he enters his final days.
This dark vision could become too much to bear for an audience and the film could become something of trek but yet such is the epic scale of Cuaron's vision that it is never too much. There is enough heart and hope for the redemption of man to carry the film to its thrilling end. It makes for at times affecting viewing and combined with a superb soundtrack that moves seamlessly across genres and decades to pulls at the heartstrings. It is never less than compelling viewing and there are some fine performances even apart from the leads. The great Peter Mullan steals every scene he is in as the deranged immigration officer Syd and Chiwetel Ejiofor excels as the dark hearted ideologue of the Fishes. 
A thought provoking and absorbing tale with a wafer thin premise at the heart of it that remains just believable enough to carry the film. It is an epic journey and perhaps one of the best films of the naughties, if you haven't seen it yet than I urge you to do so.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini 1961-2013

“In life, it’s not men that count, it’s the man.”

It is with sadness this morning that I awoke to news of the death of James Gandolfini at the age of 51 of a suspected heart attack while holidaying in Rome with his son. It is far too young an age to bid farewell to anyone but particularly for somebody who brought such talent into the world and through the entertainment he provided made the everyday lives of millions around the world just that little sweeter. He was a peerless talent and one who’s passing will long be lamented.
Mr Gandolfini was born into a working class New Jersey family in 1961. His father was an Itailian immigrant who had a number of jobs including bricklayer and stone mason while his mother was a cafeteria chef.  He was not somebody born to be an actor and indeed worked as bartender and a nightclub manager before he was introduced to acting at the age of 25 by a friend who took him to an acting class. His talent and hard work was such that he soon began to build a career as a character actor making his Broadway début in a 1992 revival of Tennessee Williams classic A Street Car Named Desire.

Like so many men of his stature and ethnicity, it was as playing Italian-American tough guys that Gandolfini first found fame. He brought a brutal charm to the role of Virgil, a Mafia hit man in Tony Scott’s 1993 film True Romance, based on a script by Quentin Tarantino. From there he built a steady career as a character actor playing in small roles in big Hollywood pictures like Crimson Tide, Get Shorty and Night Falls on Manhattan. He was however still largely an unknown when in 1999 David Chase cast him to star in his new HBO Mafia-themed family drama The Sopranos as Tony Soprano.  He said of the role in 2001:

I thought it was a wonderful script…But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair, shall we say, a little more appealing to the eye.

It was a role that made him famous across the globe and offered him the chance to bring his great acting talent to bear on a character worthy of it.  To me, what made his performance so compelling was that he made Tony endearing even lovable at times but yet never compromised on the fact that he was a hard man, a gangster who could be brutally violent and display little remorse afterward. The Sopranos went on to change how people viewed television, pushing the limits of what was thought possible.  By all accounts Gandolfini was a lovely man in person but yet he seemed to inhabit the role of Tony completely on the screen. If you have yet to see it, take the time. Across six series The Sopranos brings the viewer on a journey through an epic saga of family, loyalty and the corruptive power of crime.

For James Gandolfini, The Sopranos brought him fame, wealth but above all recognition of his talent. For me his performance will remain as one of the best I’ve ever seen for many years to come. It was not however the limit of his talents. In the years since that final cut to black brought an end to the series and perhaps Tony Soprano himself, he has taken on a wide variety of roles to great acclaim. He was a profane and irritable armchair General in the British satire In the Loop and the voice of Carol in the big screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. He played a damaged and grieving man opposite Kristen Stewart in the much underappreciated Welcome to the Rileys.

He was nominated for a Tony award for his performance as an angry parent in the Broadway drama God of Carnage opposite Jeff Daniels who said this morning:

If Broadway has a version of a guy you want in your foxhole, Jim Gandolfini was mine. During our time together in 'God of Carnage,' we played 320 performances together. He didn't miss one. Sadly, I now miss him like a brother.”

Last year he delivered an entertaining turns as the CIA Director in Katherine Bigelow’s account of the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. It was a different type of role and hinted at the imposing gravitas he now brought to his performances as he aged. He continued to work with HBO, producing a number of documentaries for the channel including Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq and was next to be seen on a new drama series called Criminal Justice.
He is survived by his wife and two children. I leave the final words to Sopranos creator David Chase and I include my favourite scene from the show below.

He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. He was my partner… He was my brother in ways I can't explain and never will be able to explain."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Flick of the Day: The Iceman

I like surprises. I especially like surprises when I go to the cinema. I like entering the theatre with little or no expectations and being pleasantly surprised by the two hour traffic of my stage. Of course such things are relatively rare in this age of endless interconnectivity and near constant reviews of everything that a human being can consume. Generally you know what to expect. Today was a nice exception.  
Michael Shannon has developed a career out of playing intense and often brooding characters to great effect. He was the crazed young man who is perhaps the only truly sane character in Revolutionary Road, he was the family man driven over the edge by his nightmares in Take Shelter and the crooked cop having a bad day in Premium Rush. Such is his talent that with the right roles he will surely become a star. Today he plays Richard Kuklinski, a real life Mafia hit-man who built a career on a pathological coldness yet maintained a relatively happy family life until his arrest in 1986.
Our tale opens in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1965, Richard is a quiet and brooding young man attempting to woo Deborah played by Winona Ryder. The pair fall in love and marry though Deborah remains unaware that Richard works as a pornography distributor on the fringes of the underworld.  He soon displays a propensity for great violence at the least provocation and comes to the attention of local boss Roy Demeo played with a vicious charm by Ray Liotta. Richard becomes a man who removes the little problems that Roy encounters. The years pass and the body count rises and meanwhile Richard and Deborah have  had two daughters who seem to worship the ground on which their father walks. Business has been good to Richard and he has become a wealthy man. He explains his largesse to his unsuspecting friends as being down to his skill as a foreign currency trader. Things are almost too good and so it proves as the actions of Roy's deadbeat friend Josh Rosenthal, played by an incredibly sleazy David Schwimmer, conspire to drive a wedge between Roy and Richard. Richard's life begins to spiral out of control and as his well appointed facade falls apart so does his grip on his psychosis.
What separates today's flick and indeed Michael Shannon's performance is that unlike so many films it does not in any way seek to glamorise the lives of what are deeply disturbed men. They do not live normal lives like the rest of us, they live violently. It is the violence and the underlying psychosis which anchor their lives. Richard Kuklinski is a very scary individual, always on the edge of violence. Yet so is Ray Liotta's Roy Demeo and Richard's fellow contract killer Mr. Freezy played by Chris Evans. They are men who hurt small animals, men who engage in domestic violence. They are in short, not to be admired or normalised in the manner so many gangsters are in hagiography-like biopics. 
The film is blessed to have a really excellent supporting cast with fine turns from the likes of Robert Davi as a Mafia boss, John Ventimiglia who is perhaps better known as Artie Bucco in The Sopranos and a blink and you will miss it turn from James Franco. All in all this is a very compelling look at a man consumed by violence. It manages to both detail his crimes and his love for his family which I don't doubt was genuine. Some of the most interesting scenes involve the interplay between Richard and his unassuming family. Shannon's performance makes you feel like anything could happen. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Flick of The Day: The Shawshank Redemption

In August 1982, Stephen King released his new book. It was something of a portmanteau novel combining four separate novellas under the title Different Seasons, linking each with reference to the changing seasons.  One of the novellas was a little fable called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”. So was born a tale of hope and its redemptive power. In 1987, an aspiring young film-maker and screenwriter named Frank Darabont optioned the rights to make the story into a feature film for the princely sum of $1. He had impressed the novelist with a previous adaptation and the pair had maintained a pen pal relationship over the years.  This was to say the least something of a coup for Darabont. The director Rob Reiner has been desperate to acquire the rights to Shawshank having offered $2.5m in the hope of writing and directing his own adaptation to have starred Tom Cruise as the main protagonist Andy Dufresne and Harrison Ford as his friend Red. However Darabont had his own vision for the film and saw it as his opportunity to make something special. Thankfully for all of us, he got to realise his vision.

In Portland, Maine in 1947, a wealthy young banker named Andy Dufresne, played with a Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz like charm by Tim Robbins, is accused of murdering his adulterous wife. She had left him for a local golf pro and the pair of lovers had been found murdered the next morning. Andy protests his innocence; he went to the house on the night in question and sat in his car drinking with a loaded weapon which he later claims to have thrown in the river.  He is found guilty and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences to be served at Shawshank State Penitentiary. We soon learn that Shawshank is a violent and brutal place overseen by the corrupt religious ideologue Warden Norton, a fantastic career best performance from Bob Gunton, and the thoroughly evil Captain Byron Hadley, played by Clancy Brown. Andy’s quiet and aloof manner is taken by his fellow prisoners as an indication that he sees himself as a cut above. It is not until a couple of months of passed that he speaks a word to anyone.  The man he chooses is Red, a prisoner who knows how to get things. Whatever you require, Red will provide. Morgan Freeman delivers perhaps his greatest performance as Red imbuing the character with wit and charm while retaining a hard edged outlook on prison life borne of his own life sentence.  Andy asks Red to procure a rock hammer; he was a collector of rocks in his former life and wishes to do so again. He later asks Red to procure him a poster of Rita Hayworth. As the year pass by, the pair develop a friendship, something to hold onto against the bleak landscape of the prison. Andy is targeted by a gang of rapists, the Sisters, led by the malevolent Boggs. He is repeatedly attacked, sometimes fighting them off, sometimes not. 

Eventually Andy manages to find himself useful in aiding the corruption at the heart of Shawshank and in particular Warden Norton. Years pass and we find ourselves moving through the 1950s and 60s. Andy is put in charge of the prison library and freed once and for all from the attentions of the Sisters. Throughout the decades of drudgery and setbacks, Andy maintains the hope of eventual freedom. Red on the other hand comes to accept that he may never leave the prison. As we reach a thrilling and life affirming ending, we are left in n doubt that hope can overcome all and bring redemption to those who have long given up on it.

I am determined to keep as much of the plot under wraps as I can for those unlikely few who have yet to see the film as it is such a joy to behold. Andy overcomes so much and yet maintains a lifelong friendship with Red. It would destroy lesser men and indeed the film certainly hints that Andy has taken all that he can take.
There are too many superlatives which could be applied to the film so I will only offer up a few small thoughts. The nuance and exactitude of Darabont’s storytelling is something to behold. There are no moments of fat on the script, it is tight, well thought out and leads to the finest of denouement. In terms of performances, the film is replete with some really fine turns. Tim Robbins perfectly captures a vulnerable and quiet man who is thrust into hell but hopes to retain his human dignity. He seeks only peace where others might need revenge. Morgan Freeman is equally adept as Red or Ellis Redding to give him his full name. He manages to bring a sense of loss to the character. A man who knows that but for one stupid mistake as a young man he could have lived his life. It is this sense of loss which drives him to survive and not rely on superfluous (in his mind) things like hope.

Of course every hero needs an enemy and in Bob Gunton’s Warden Norton, Andy has one for the ages.  From the first moment we meet him, he is a steely eyed zealot determined to enforce absolute rule on the prisoners. Much like Jesuit missionaries or the crusaders of old, he cannot be reasoned with and has a quote from the scriptures to justify all eventualities. Yet he is a deeply immoral man, through the use of Andy’s skills he creates a vast network of corruption with ill-gotten money flowing toward him.
Ultimately the central theme of the film is justice or the lack thereof. Andy may find redemption but he never gets justice. Neither his wife nor her lover could be said to have received it either, their true murderer remaining unaccounted for.  Warden Norton uses his own method to avoid the long reach of justice. I suppose the heart of the film is that you can’t rely on outside forces to deliver you safely; it is only true personal determination that we can hope to survive.

Having watched the film again for the purposes of this, it is strange to think that it was a commercial failure on its initial release, earning a grand total of $16m before it left cinemas.  It was however well received by critics and went on to garner seven nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was only when it reached the home video market that it truly began to be seen by cineastes as the triumph it is. In the years since, the legend has grown to the stage where it is now Number 1 on the IMDB 250 and appears unlikely to be toppled any time soon. It has become something of a Western cultural touch stone which everyone sees at some point. For that alone, I think Stephen King got his $1 worth.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Flick of The Day: Rounders

To me, defining a film as a “cult movie” can very often be a kiss of death. It implies a kind of blind faith in the film’s qualities on behalf of its followers. Very often this means that a small minority of people have decided to champion the work of a director who just isn't very good. If the film were the gem they claimed it to be, more people would like it. This is not always the case. There are those rare times when a brilliant film is overlooked due poor marketing or a studio releasing it for a week in only one cinema. It happens. It is often forgotten that The Shawshank Redemption was a commercial failure on its release and it was only when it was rediscovered and eventually championed on home video that it took on the mantle of modern classic which it bears today. Perhaps the original “cult” movie is Withnail and I, a film beloved by a generation of students since its release. Then again, perhaps now the film is less of “cult” and more of a cultural touch point because it has become recognised for the very fine film it is. I suppose what I am driving at is that a film tends to retain this mythic “cult” film status until its merits are recognised and the chances are that it this never happens, the film probably isn't worth your devotion. Today’s flick of the day is a film that has thrown of its “cult” status and rightly so for it is a very enjoyable couple of hours indeed, Rounders.

In the lexicon of professional poker, a rounder is a player who tours the country looking for gambling action, a man who lives and dies by the fall of the cards.  Legends of the game like Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim could be described thus and it was not a respectable career to have at the time. It is only really in the last two decades as the internet poker boom made it more socially acceptable to be a professional player that it has gained a modicum of respectability. Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon, is a young man who wants to play the game at that kind of level. As the film begins, he is using his poker prowess to finance his way through law school in New York however he dreams of bigger things. In an attempt to build a bank roll he can take to Las Vegas he finds himself outplayed by a connected Russian Mafioso, Teddy KGB, played with wild abandon by John Malkovich.  It is a crushing defeat not least because he now finds himself broke and driving a delivery truck for friend Knish, in a fine turn from John Turturro as a wise old poker head. He promises his girlfriend he will gamble no more and as the months pass he keeps this promise. However when his old friend Worm is release from prison, played by the always excellent Ed Norton, he returns to his previous ways largely in part to Worm’s goading and pleading. Worm is like a bad penny and despite paying lip service to Mike’s attempts to change him, eventually runs up a large debt on Mike’s tab to local hoodlum Grama. When a long shot attempt to play their way out of trouble is fatally undermined by Worm’s cheating play, Mike is left with few options. This is made worse by the discovery that Grama is backed up by Teddy KGB. Ultimately Mike is left with no option but to attempt to play his way out of a debt that Worm landed him with.

There are few elements of gambling more replete with thrilling moments of drama than the turn of the final or river card in a game of Texas Hold’Em poker. The most enjoyable moments of the film are when Mike is throwing it all on the turn of a card. The film-maker successfully wrings every moment of tension out of it by allowing us to see the cards that Mike holds. Audiences love to see an underdog win, to beat overwhelming odds and come out on top. It is at the heart of the continued success of films like Rocky and its sequels. Mike is such an underdog because we have seen him lose it all before and know that he is only back here because a supposed friend has mistreated him. It makes the denouement all the more delicious.

In a young Matt Damon, the film has the perfect blend of sensitivity and charm to carry the role and it is of course no surprise that he went on the be the star he has subsequent to this film’s release in 1998.  Of course it helps that film is top loaded with excellent character actors like Ed Norton, John Malkovich and John Turturro. This is without even mentioning a crucial turn from Martin Landau.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable film which any poker player can’t help but identify with and indeed it has been credited in some quarters with helping to foment the massive increase in poker playing across the globe over the last decade.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Flick of the Day: The Name Of The Rose

It is often strange how the careers of actors and directors tend to move in cycles. When you’re up, you’re up and studios seem willing to make almost anything your name is attached to no matter how awful (See the early career of Colin Farrell).  The flip side of course is that when you are out of favour, you can’t get a film made for love nor money. While accepting his Oscar earlier this year, Ben Affleck noted how his career had been affected by negative publicity and indeed how he felt like he would never work again.  Of course the cycles come and go and I’d like to think that if somebody is talented they will continue to find work. One such example would be the star of today’s flick, Sean Connery. Now of course Connery is enjoying a well-earned retirement with a hard fought reputation as a screen icon. However, it was not always thus.  In 1986 when Jean-Jacques Annaud was casting his adaptation of Umberto Eco’s surprise bestseller, Connery’s name was one of the last on the list. The studio would have preferred to have cast almost anyone other than him and when he was cast Columbia pulled their financing. This is perhaps not surprising given where his career was at the time.  He was on quite a streak of failures stretching back to 1979’s misbegotten Cuba and including an ill-advised and unofficial return to James Bond in 1983’s Never Say Never Again.  Included in this period is something called Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which I will admit to knowing almost nothing about beyond its thoroughly awful rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Connery was eventually cast in the role of William of Baskervile, a Franciscan monk and intellectual who strives for knowledge while Europe is in the dark ages. Together with his young disciple Adso, ably played by a very young Christian Slater, William travels to a Benedictine Abbey in the mountains of northern Italy. Upon his arrival, it becomes apparent that all is not well with the monks. One of their number has fallen to his death from a tower above the library which the abbey is famed for. The Abbot, played with characteristic understatement by Michael Lonsdale, asks William to investigate the death. Together with Adso he sets about the desk with a zeal for finding the truth. Along the way he attempts to impart something of his knowledge to the naïve Adso. However as further deaths begin to occur, William realises that he is in a race against time to catch a killer intent on covering his tracks before the arrival of the evil inquisitor Bernardo Gui with whom William has a complicated history. He quickly becomes drawn into a plot involving a lust for knowledge, sexual power and the very nature of religion.

Half the battle in any production such as this is having a good story around which to build your film. In this case Umberto Eco’s superb novel is rich in detail and atmosphere and offers a bounty for any film adaptation. Annaud’s tone is consistently dark throughout which feels to me to be in line with the novel and helps to create an atmosphere of dread as it sweeps through the Abbey. The monks are men of learning and language who live in splendid isolation from the squalor of the peasants who live outside their walls yet they are if anything equally immoral if not more so than the flock they seem to despise. Ultimately nothing is black or white and all of the monks are cast in shades of grey.  The film also deviates from the book in avoiding great detail of the ecclesiastical split between the different orders of monks and how it had affected the Church at the time, something that while interesting would not make for thrilling viewing.

Of course it helps to have a great cast and in this regard the film’s cup overfloweth.  For all the travails around his casting, Connery is nothing less than superb in the role of William bringing wit and charm to the character. Plaudits must also go to the then hilariously young Christian Slater who really makes you wonder how all that talent was pissed away over the years.  Ron Perlman is almost unrecognisable as the brutish grotesque Salvatore and he is joined in the cast by the likes of F. Murray Abraham and the gorgeous Valentina Vargas.

A commercial failure in the US, the film became a runaway success in Europe including being the highest grossing film of the year in France. For Sean Connery it marked the start of a welcome return to form. He would close out the decade with hits like The Untouchables, The Presidio with a young and irritating Meg Ryan and of course Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and The Hunt for Red October. Such is the nature of career cycles .  

Monday, May 6, 2013

Flick of the Day: Elefante Blanco / White Elephant

Argentine film-maker Pablo Trapero has over the years developed quite a knack for successfully marrying complex social issues in his native Argentina with excellent story telling  and an eye for dramatic flair. Over the years, we have reviewed a number of his films for The Daily Flick including El Bonaerense, an engaging look at police corruption and 2010's  thrilling Carancho. The latter film stars Ricardo Darin, perhaps the best and most definitely the busiest actor in South American cinema. Darin and Trapero are reunited again in today's flick of the day, White Elephant, set in the teeming slums of Buenos Aires.
In the Villa Virgin shanty-town of Buenos Aires lies a long incomplete hospital, an icon of broken government promises around which a vast slum has built up. In this melting pot of humanity toils the good priest, Julian, played by Ricardo Darin, Julian strives to complete a new social housing project to free the people from poverty while working with crusading social worker Luciana, played by the incomparable Martina Gusman, to help the local young people escape drug abuse. At the film's open, we are introduced to Julian looking ominously at a brain scan and before long he welcomes a new priest to his staff, the idealistic and conflicted Nicolas, played by Jeremie Renier. Nicolas has recently survived a vicious attack on the jungle mission where he was working. Together the three fight to try and make the lives of the slums residents a little bit better while interacting with a clerical hierarchy who wish to keep the area at arms length and an organised crime element involved in bloody internecine conflicts between the narrow streets of the favela.
At times this is bravura film-making from Trapero, we are immediately drawn into the life at the heart of this neighbourhood, the living and the dying. The film has an epic feel from the beginning as the excellent cinematography by Guillermo Nieto manages to both highlight the scale of the slum and its conflicts while also accentuating the narrow claustrophobic streets that criss cross it. While the work of Julian and his team is worthy, it would not make for enthralling cinema were it not for the fact that as the tensions mount in the favela over the lack of construction progress and a bitter bloody feud between two rival gangs, the faith and belief of Julian, Luciana and Nicolas is shaken if not shattered.    
How this conflict and testing of the character's beliefs plays out is the emotional heart of the film. Ultimately the question asked by Trapero is what is the cost for people who give everything to help people with less than them? This is an often dark film but it is never less than compelling. If the film has a flaw it is that its ending doesn't live up to what has come before. Yet despite this, there is much to enjoy here not least another fine turn from Ricardo Darin. There is enough talent evident in Trapero's work to make me want to see where he goes next because it will surely be something special.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Flick of the Day: Cross of Iron

There is no doubt that certain film-makers and their work are so adored by their fans that even the biggest turkey in their filmography will find its defenders. There are still people who will vigorously claim that Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is a masterpiece. Who knows, perhaps they’re right and it’s the rest of the world that’s wrong. We all have our blind spots but the point is that the overall quality of the work of such auteurs is such that it engenders deep support from viewers. Sam Peckinpah was such a film-maker and when on form and when his work was allowed to speak for itself (something that was rarely the case during his career), he was a prodigious talent. Perhaps his most well-known and celebrated film is the slice of revisionist western that is The Wild Bunch and it is an enjoyable, if violent, epic. However in my humble opinion, his best and indeed one of the greatest war movies ever made, is 1977’s Cross of Iron.

Cross of Iron is one of those rare things in a Hollywood film, a WW2 story from the side of the German army.  There are many historical reasons why this is the case, not least the crimes of national socialism and the holocaust, however Peckinpah manages to side step this by focusing on the lives of the average German soldier on the Eastern front. These enlisted men have nothing but scorn for Hitler, the party and their officers.
It is 1943 and the German campaign in Russia is rapidly beginning to reach its nadir. We are introduced to the hard bitten Sergeant Steiner, played with grim determination by an excellent James Coburn. Steiner is a decorated hero and winner of the Iron Cross who is beloved by his men. While he is difficult and often insubordinate, he is tolerated by his superiors Colonel Brandt, a weary James Mason and the resigned (to defeat if not death) Captain Kiesel, played with a rakish charm by David Warner. Into this steps the patrician form of Captain Stransky, a wonderfully malicious Maximilian Schell. Stransky is an officer of the Prussian aristocracy and has arranged his transfer to the front in order to obtain an Iron Cross. His brusque and often brutal leadership immediately puts him into conflict with Steiner. After Steiner and his men lead a bloody and victorious counterattack against the oncoming Russian forces, the cowardly Stransky who had hidden from battle, attempts to claim credit for the assault. He requires two men to corroborate, one he obtains by blackmailing a closeted homosexual and for the other he enlists Steiner. Steiner refuses to corroborate his tale even when urged by Colonel Brandt with the knowledge that it will rid them of Stransky. An enraged Stransky enacts a brutal revenge however. As the Russian army threatens to overrun their position he fails to pass on the order to retreat to Steiner and his men, leaving them trapped behind enemy lines with the only option of fighting their way out.
Filmed in Yugoslavia behind the then iron curtain, Peckinpah’s film has a real veneer of authenticity to it. War is brutal and the stark conditions of the front lines are continuously exposed to the viewer. In James Coburn’s Steiner, we are presented with an almost legendary example of soldiery. He is abrasive yet fair and not open to the kind of corruption which Stransky wallows in. Throughout the film Steiner defies death to lead his men to safety. It is a bravura performance form Coburn. Yet Schell deserves equal plaudits for his portrayal of the slimy but driven Stransky. He is the kind of patrician who looks down on all other men yet has a grudging respect for the abilities of Steiner who has achieved the one thing he could not, the iron cross. This leads him to dishonour himself in an attempt to enact revenge on Steiner, something he would not need to stoop to for other lesser men.

Like much of Peckinpah’s work, this contains sexual politics which can seem out of touch with modern times. At one point Steiner and his men come across a farmhouse full of female Soviet soldiers with consequences that can be expected. Now I’m aware the Russian had a lot of female participation, certainly far more than the other Allies, and a lot of it was concentrated at the front lines but the scene as it plays out feels bizarre at such a remove.
Even upon release the ending of the film stood out for its abrupt nature and over the years a legend has grown up that the production ran out of money and was forced to throw together an ending on the last day of shooting that wasn't to Peckinpah’s liking. While the ending was not as outlined in the original script, it was something that Peckinpah had Coburn improvise on the day. Regardless, it doesn't detract from the film and contains one of the best lines in the film:

“Then I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow”

The film’s production is almost as legendary as its story. It was financed by a West-German pornography producer and filmed in Yugoslavia using mainly extras from the local army. Peckinpah was at this stage of his career a full blown alcoholic with reports that he drank four bottles of whiskey or vodka during every day of filming, sleeping only 2 to 4 hours a night as he struggled to complete his only WW2 film.
Overall, this is a film which just has to be seen. It is brutal and epic in a way that few films are these days. It showcases a director at his best and a fine cast of actors giving career best performances. Is it of its time? Absolutely but it doesn't detract from what is a great story.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Flick of the Day: Good Vibrations

 It can often be the case that history on screen can feel somewhat remote and detached from modern life, sometimes the frame of reference can be so different that it is difficult to take in the historical events playing out on screen. This is not always the case; the events depicted in Schindler’s List are as harrowing today as they no doubt were at the time.  For me, the events and happenings in Belfast during the Troubles of the 1970’s and 80’s can feel somewhat remote when played out on screen  given the long period of peace the people of Northern Ireland have enjoyed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Today’s flick of the day however, Good Vibrations, manages to bring to life the difficult and often harrowing events of those times while also immersing us in the Belfast punk music scene through this fine tale of the life and times of Terri Hooley.

At the opening of the film we are introduced to a young Terri playing in his front garden where all is right with the world until after an exchange of words with some local children he gets a toy arrow to the face and requires a glass eye. At this point, I was slightly worried that the film might turn out to be a tad too grim to be enjoyable but it isn't the case. We fast forward in a bravura sequence of carefully edited news footage to Belfast in the 1970’s. Terri is a music fan and he saw all the greats come to Belfast in the 1960’s : Dylan, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the list goes on until of course they stopped coming because nobody went out at night anymore.

We find Terri, played by the excellent Richard Dormer, scratching out a living in Dylan Moran’s dive bar where he acts a DJ to an empty room.  There he meets Ruth played by an equally excellent Jodie Whittaker; he explains that once upon a time he had lots of friends, both Protestant and Catholic and that once the troubles started, they fell into opposing groups with Terri alone in the middle. We see how his former friends now despise him for not siding with either side. After marrying Ruth, they try and form a life together despite the maelstrom which is erupting around them.  However after Terri is the subject of an attempted kidnapping at gunpoint while walking home one night, he decides that he had to do something to foster peace and hits on the idea of a record shop. With the help of Ruth’s idealistic group of friends and a mortgage on his house, Terri sets up Good Vibrations. The story would have ended there but for the fact that Terri becomes drawn into, almost by accident, the emerging punk scene in Belfast. Despite being older than the young people that are the focus of this movement, Terri finds himself drawn to the energy of the music and a scene which is truly cross-cultural and without the infection of sectarianism. He sets out to try and bring as much press and airplay to the burgeoning scene and its various bands including most famously The Undertones and their anthem “Teenage Kicks”.
The real strength of this film is how it perfectly captures the raw energy and emotion of the punk movement and how influential it would prove despite its short initial lifespan.  Yet the film does not ignore the fact that punk was not the only game in town. In a poignant scene, Terri notes how talented musicians from the oft-maligned show band circuit kept the Belfast music scene alive.

The film displays a light touch with a period of Northern Ireland’s history which was grim to say the least and is to be commended for this. The casting of some of the young bands feels spot on, in particular Fergal Sharky of The Undertones. Ultimately the rise and fall of punk in Belfast did not bring about a sea change in relations between the two factions and it can’t be ignored that the Troubles thundered on for another 15 years with perhaps the darkest days in the 1980’s. Yet this film feels like a celebration of a time and place when change felt possible and one can’t help but be caught up in Terri Hooley’s story. As the man himself puts in the end: “When it comes to punk, New York may have the haircuts, London may have the trousers but Belfast has the reason”.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Flick of the Day: Nine Queens / Nueve Reinas

Since I first started writing this blog, I have always made an effort to label the leading actors as a way of tracking old posts and films. It was a surprise then and perhaps a testament to the talent of the man when I noticed that today's flick of the day would be the third to contain the talents of Argentine actor Ricardo Darin, the previous films being the excellent The Secret in Their Eyes and the equally compelling Vulture. One of the biggest names in Argentine cinema, he is a superb talent has only begun to be appreciated over the last decade outside of his own country.
Nine Queens is the tale of two con artists who meet in a supposedly random fashion on the streets of modern day Buenos Aires. Marcos, played by Darin, is the older wiser head of the two with an eye for a quick buck wherever it can be had regardless of the effect on his relationships with friends and family. He is quick, sharp and charming when he needs to be. Juan, played by Gaston Pauls, is the earnest and naive younger man who needs to raise money to get his father out of prison. The pair meet in a petrol station one night when Juan is caught attempting a scam and Marcos manages to talk him out of it. He offers Juan the chance to work with him foe one day as his partner has split town. Juan is hesitant at first but eventually agrees. They set off into the busy streets of the city to hatch money making schemes as and when they present themselves. Their focus soon turns to a wealthy Spanish businessman who is staying at a nearby hotel and has a passion for collecting stamps. They plot to sell him fake copies of a rare German stamp much to the annoyance of Marcos's sister who as well as being an employee of the hotel has also fallen out with her brother when he attempted to rob her inheritance. A tense and entertaining crime drama, one begins to feel early on that the protagonists are attempting to con each other and that all is not as it seems but who is the true master con artists and who is the mark?
Ricardo Darin is excellent as the sleazy yet likeable Marcos, a man who survives and thrives on the strength of his own wits. He is the focus of the movie and carries it at times. His fellow compatriot Gaston Pauls also gives an entertaining as the supposedly naive young thief Juan. He is the perfect foil to Marcos, helping the old hand out of a few tight scrapes as the film heats up. 
Director Fabian Bielinsky makes the most of his tightly written script and allows the actors performances to flow. The story such as it is could not be accused of being too original and if you are the kind of movie goer with a penchant for seeing twist endings before they announce themselves then you will probably see this one coming a mile off. That said, the film moves along at a breezy base and there is enough humour to keep you entertained. While none of the characters involved are nice people, let us not forget they are all some form of con artist or scam artist, they are entertaining portrayals and it makes for an enjoyable ride.
Ricardo Darin's career has gone from strength to strength over the past decade and though the number of Argentine films which make it to release in European cinemas, even art house cinemas, is still low with talent like this on show the future is bright.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Flick of the Day: Robot and Frank

Ageing is only very rarely dealt with in cinema and even rarer still is for it to be looked at in any kind of positive light. To lose one's faculties is to lose ones grip on reality or the ability to lead any kind of reasonable life or so the movies would have you believe. Today's flick of the day, Robot and Frank, is that rare event and while not detaching itself entirely from reality manages to be funny, charming and sad. 
In the near future, Frank Langella is an ageing cat burglar who is beginning to lose track of his thoughts on a regular basis. He finds himself wandering through his remote up-state New York home not quite sure of where he is. His house is a mess and he has begun to miss meals and misplace his children's names. He spends his days wandering into town to visit the library to pick up books to read and flirt with the librarian Jennifer, played by  an excellent Susan Sarandon. His son Hunter, played by James Marsden, comes up with the ingenious idea of an expensive next generation robot who has been programmed to look after Frank and keep his memory from deteriorating further much to Frank's irritation. Alone in his rambling old house with his new robot nurse, Frank initially rails against this electronic interloper. However gradually as he gets used to the rhythm of life, he becomes attached to the robot. He soon realises that his new friend can be used for more nefarious means and the possibility of one last big score presents itself. He trains Robot to pick locks and case potential robberies. Frank is determined that together they will pull off another job despite the best efforts of his free spirited daughter Madison, played by Liv Tyler, who attempts to remove Robot and move in with Frank in an attempt to assuage her own guilt.
This film is very funny at times, finding humour in many of the little foibles of Frank's life without ever seeming to laugh at him. His self involved children are perfectly drawn characters and the story is relevant to us all given the way we all try to hive off ageing and the aged into a particular corner of society. However, the real joy and pathos of the film is the relationship between Frank and Robot, voiced by the talented Peter Sarsgaard, while Robot continues to remind Frank that he is not human, Frank begins to develop a friendship with him and as they spend more time together, he becomes increasingly protectful as he begins to rely on Robot and by the end of the film does not wish to part from him regardless of the cost.
Langella gives a wonderful performance as Frank, a man unwilling to comes to terms with effects of getting older. He is nuanced in how he handles the ups and downs of the script and displays perfect comic timing. It is at times a master class in how to act a part with subtlety, wit and a sly charm. Kudos also to Sarsgaard whose voice of Robot brings the character to life and gives him a presence on the screen. 
The film is full of laughs but yet is possessed of a great heart and can only leave you feeling wistful at the end for Frank and Robot. A genuinely unexpected triumph, I urge you to see it if you get a chance. It shines a light on ageing and memory loss without being trite or overly sentimental yet gives you two characters whose company you will delight in.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Flick of the Day: Witness for the Prosecution

Charles Laughton is one of the greatest actors ever to grace the silver screen and yet he is not anything like the kind of household name of a Brando or DeNiro or in receipt of the same plaudits as Olivier or Gielgud. A versatile talent he worked until his premature death in 1962 from liver cancer with starring roles in classics such as Mutiny on the Bounty and Hobson's Choice. A fine entry in his later career work is today's flick of the day, Witness for the Prosecution, an adaptation of an Agatha Christie play of the same name from writer and director Billy Wilder.
Laughton fills the role, in every sense of the word, the role of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, an eminent barrister and legal scholar who at the films open is recovering from a recent heart attack despite his own best efforts to the contrary. He is determined to return to his legal practice despite the opposition of his nurse Miss Plimsoll played by Laughton's own wife Elsa Lanchester. However a most interesting case soon falls into his lap, that of a down at heel inventor named Leonard Vole, played by Tyrone Power as an Englishman with an inexplicable American accent, who has been accused of the murder of a wealthy widow. His only defence is the alibi of his wife, an immigrant whom he rescued from the ravages of post war Germany played by the excellent Marlene Dietrich. Sir Wilfrid is immediately suspicious of Vole's wife and of her willingness to appear in his defence though there is no doubt in his mind that Vole is an innocent man. He launches himself into a new trial putting his health in danger to defend an innocent man whilst investigating the machinations of Vole's supposedly loving wife.
Billy Wilder could easily lay claim to being one of the great director's of Hollywood's golden age with a filmography to rival anyone including highlights such as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. He is on top form here, carefully weaving the various strands of the tale into a suspenseful legal thriller. Of course it helps when the cast is as strong as that on offer here. Laughton dominates the screen both with his immense bulk and his deep booming diction, a performance perfectly suited to that of a barrister. Dietrich and Power are equally strong with Power giving one of his final performances before his untimely death while filming Solomon and Sheba in Spain.
Wilder was always a director who could turn his hand to any kind of film and in this case, he manages to transcend the genre of courtroom thriller to make a film that is enjoyable and thrilling in equal measure. It doesn't really have any weak elements and would have surely swept the board at the 1958 Oscars were it for the stiff upper lip juggernaut that was The Bridge on the River Kwai. He deviates from Christie's play by inserting humour into the script where it can bare it such as the verbal back and forth between Laughton and his put upon nurse. 
While the ending might stretch the believability stakes in an attempt to keep the film from falling foul of the Production Code which stated that crime must not go unpunished, it is an entertaining drama all the same. If for no other reason then to admire Laughton at somewhere not even near his best, this is a film worth seeing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Flick of The Day: Little Miss Sunshine

It is a rare enough thing to come across a film that you see without any preconceptions or expectations. It is rarer still for such a film to be joyously fantastic with every frame from beginning to end. Little Miss Sunshine is such a film and remains a personal favourite some 7 years after I first encountered it. It combines a quirky tale of modern family life with a diverse and vibrant cast of characters. It's funny, sad, and wickedly life affirming throughout.
Sheryl, the divine Toni Collette, is an overburdened mother in Albuquerque, where she lives with her precocious daughter Olive played by the excellent Abigail Breslin, her delightfully huffy and unhappy in the way only teenagers can be son Dwayne, played by Paul Dano and her husband Richard, a self help guru with a clue played by the always watch-able Greg Kinnear. The family is rounded out by Grandpa Edwin, a foul mouthed Alan Arkin who enjoys snorting heroin and speaking his mind. Into this family unit steps Sheryl's brother Frank played by Steve Carell, the nations foremost Proust scholar who has recently attempted suicide and needs a place to stay. Olive has been prepping for her upcoming début as a beauty queen in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Due to a series of complications, the family are forced to set out across the country in a yellow VW bus to reach the pageant in Redondo beach, California.  Despite each having their own problems and goals, they band together to get Olive to her goal. Dwayne has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a test pilot, Richard is trying to sell his self-help programme and Frank is struggling with depression.
 The real strength of the movie is Michael Arndt's script which is just packed with humour and carries and emotional punch not often seen in an ostensibly comic film. He creates a world and a cast of character that are a pleasure to spend time with. The dialogue ebbs and flows with a ring of authenticity, and the stellar cast reflects this quality. As an ensemble, the cast are very well chosen. There are no weak performances but a special mention must go to Alan Arkin who is superb as Edwin. 
From the opening sequence where the various characters are introduced at a family dinner, there is a sense that everyone has a real purpose and motivation in the story and that their actions which may seem random will eventually pay off at the story's denouement. Making this effort to ensure that the audience knows and likes the characters is time well spent before we set off on our road trip across the south-west United States. The various foibles of the cast are ripe for comedy and this is a very  funny film. The humour is carefully balanced with the emotional depth of real human drama. These are real people not comic caricatures.
A superb film, from beginning to end the script is packed with humour and pathos. The ensemble cast are perfectly chosen and play their parts with an obvious love for the role. Even the soundtrack with cuts from Devotchka and Sufjan Stevens is apt. If you haven't seen this film yet, you really should.

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