Sunday, February 28, 2010

Let The Right One In (2008) directed by Tomas Alfredson

Let The Right One In has been sitting on our shelf unwrapped for some time now. It's a vampire movie and therefore, I decided, too scary to watch in the evening. Yes, there is blood, people hung in trees, murder and infection, but none of it feels unreasonable after all.

The main characters Oskar and Eli (the vampire), both about 12 years old, are like a modern day Ronja and Birk of Swedish story telling. This film is a beautiful fairytale about what it means to become friends. The facts that Eli needs to eat blood to live, avoid sun light, and that she can crawl up walls and fly, are only minor details and the things that make her vulnerable and special.

Oskar is badly bullied in school. The depiction of bullying and the cruel dynamic in which he tries not to lose sense of self-worth is shockingly life like. Unfortunately. In the end the bullies threaten to kill Oskar. But luckily he has one friend, Eli.

In the Swedish suburban setting the movie also manages to address single motherhood, divorce, and alcoholism. Serious and re-occuring themes in Scandinavian families, for real. But despite the somewhat depressing content, Let The Right One In is full of hope. The mixture of fantastical, unreal, realist and historical is so inspiring that I wish school children could watch this. It's too gory for them, I know, but the child in me was thankful to see an emphatic and understanding film about growing up. It's the hardest part.

Nick :
It's weird watching a vampire film set in such common surroundings. The buildings, deep snow and aesthetics of Alfredson's film felt so much like suburban Finland at times, even though it's Sweden. Let The Right One In had a similar portrayal of vampire needs than Bret Easton Ellis' short story on LA vampires from The Informers. Maybe it's the everyday need for blood that's so matter of fact in both stories that I think binds them, even though they are so different.

Two children, both 12, become good friends. Oskar has divorced parents, no friends and is bullied at school. Eli, has been 12 for many years. She can fly and is a vampire with a constant need for food (i.e. blood). Oskar and Eli inevitably fall in love whilst Eli helps Oskar confront and gain revenge on his tormentors. Despite the Horror genre, what makes Let The Right One In so effective and touching a movie is the focus on the friendship between Oskar and Eli. Alfredson's film is high on atmosphere and looks amazing, almost idealizing the Swedish winter. There are some vampire cliches thrown around this film. Stay out of the daylight, the sight of blood making Eli crave for Oskar's blood at one point, the flying and Eli's attacks on her victims. But all this is handled with a deadpan beauty and naturalism that seems refreshing rather than stale.
This film moved me in some strange way. I didn't find it scary or anything like that, but Eli and Oskar's friendship was a good one to watch blossom. Chilling and poetic in an unpretentious way.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Nine (2009) Directed by Rob Marshall

Nick :
The following conversation may or may not have happened. A phone rings.....
Ring, ring , ring....(click)
Daniel : Hello.
Rob : Hello, is this Daniel Day Lewis?
Daniel : Speaking.
Rob : Hi Daniel. My name is Rob Marshall, I'm the Oscar winning director of the Chicago movie.
Daniel : Yes, I'm aware of that travesty.
Rob: well, err, anyway, I got your number from your agent. Hey Danny, do I have the part for you. I'm going to be making a movie from the hit Broadway musical based on Fellini's 8½ . And I would like you to take the lead role of the uninspired, womanizing film director Guido.
Daniel : It's Daniel to you.
Rob : Yeah, sorry Daniel. This picture will be called Nine, you get it? It's half a number up from the original title. Neat yeah? And guess what else. We're going to take away all the surrealism from the original story, all the strange observations about Italy, religion, sex, dreams and anything that was remotely interesting about Fellini's picture. We're just going to focus on the ladies and how good they look and make crass generalizations about Italians...
Daniel : Well, thanks for the phone call..
Rob : Wait, don't hang up. Listen, we have got songs, they're not great but they'll do. We want to have dance scenes like a Bob Fosse movie, but seeing as no one in the cast can dance we'll have to try and get round that. Maybe we can use modern pop video techniques, what do you think Danny? You get to dance and sing, try on a bad Italian accent. But more importantly, you got all these hot dames lusting after you. I mean you should see this Spanish broad Penelope. Wow! Mamma Mia! And then there is this Fergie who does a striptease, you should get a look at those melons. And then we have another striptease from this ditzy French chick and then...
Daniel : That's quite enough! I'm not interested..
Rob: Wait! Listen to this. Sophia Loren. She plays your dead Mamma. I mean Sophia is nearly 200 years old, but you should see the rack on this baby! Sophia heard the greatest actor of his generation will be in this movie and she wanted to be seen on screen with you. And there's more, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, we'll try to make them look good....... I mean, we'll even squeeze this British 007 Dame into a corset..... it'll be hilarious. Sexist, Sexy drivel. This movie will have Kitch classic written all over it. After It's dismissed by the critics as being really awful, people will re-discover this movie. It will have a cult following, I'm telling you Daniel..
Daniel: That's It, I'm hanging up, this is nonsense...
Rob : No Danny Boy! There's more. We have so much money to burn. You get to drive an old Alpha Romeo, we will be in the most exotic parts of Italy. Think of the food, the wine. You will have the finest Italian tailored suits. The best hand made shoes...
Daniel : Wait a minute. Did you say hand made Italian shoes?
Rob : Yeah, That's right.
Daniel : Supple, suede and leather moccasins? Hand crafted with the utmost attention paid to every stitch? Made by some peasant in a small Italian village?
Rob : designed just for you Danny Boy!
Daniel : I'm in.

We went to the cinema in town last night! The name of Daniel Day Lewis and the scary knowledge that this was a remake of Otto e mezzo (Fellini) drew us in. So we went despite the bad reviews and the fact that this is a musical, a Broadway adaptation to be precise (we hated Mamma Mia some years back).

The trailer and posters and promo shots had promised a lot of women in lingerie. And not just any women, but the biggest Hollywood stars of right now. Sure enough, almost all of the musical numbers were staged and separated from the 'real' events of the film. They happened in the imagination of Guido Contini (Daniel), the film director, but the women were wearing extremely cheap-looking underwear and in some of the shots the cinematographer managed to make
Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman and Kate Hudson almost ugly! This was not cheap-looking in a cool roughed-up way, but cheap in no-style-circa-1995 way. Why?
As the film was otherwise set to happen in the 1960's and it managed to look quite stylish over all, there is no good reason as to why the makers decided to opt for this unimaginative hooker-look.

There is really nothing to say about the content, context, cinematic values or acting in this film.
Blank. So I'll write a little more about the representation of women here:
There's the beautiful wife (Marion Cotillard) who is left alone as the artist goes after his muse in the form of various mistresses. There is the mother (Sophia Loren) comparable to a goddess and obviously a ghost, but oh so loving and good. So there you have the virgin marys. On to the whores: mistress number one (Penelope Cruz), a past memory of some town whore from when Guido was a child (Fergie), the actress of all his movies (Nicole Kidman) and the Vogue reporter (Kate Hudson). These women are the temptation, the sin, inspiration and a stop-gap. It is the return to the virginal and righteous Wife/Mother that will release the genius' creative spirit again.

So, while some things never seem to change, in 2010 there is no surrealism in 81/2, just pseudo-psychoanalysis in Nine.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) Directed by Monte Hellman

A big part of the appeal of this movie are the names James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. Think sentimental and druggie musician hippies from Laurel Canyon who almost in their sleep end up making a cult classic about cars. That's where sentimentality and music end though. This film is only about driving in a race car across the US, stopping at gas stations and at races, then driving a lot more.

I don't care for cars and I don't know anything about engine talk, but I have grown to love traveling long-distance in a car. In the monotony of rhythm, the scenery, the gas stations and most importantly the road, there is something romantic that begins to take form the longer you go on. That's what this film captures.

The Driver and the Mechanic look like hippies, but we never learn anything much about them through dialogue. At one of their early gas station stops a young hippie Girl (Laurie Bird) gets into the back seat and there she stays from then on. Her presence brings a second element to the car. Through their infatuation with her, the men reveal something of themselves. But still, no dialogue, really. Just events and actions.

The GTO (Warren Oates) drives a ridiculous looking yellow sports car. He is a sleeze. He does a lot of talking in his vehicle picking up hitch-hikers (sign of the times) and telling a different life story every time. From passing on the road, the GTO and the driver decide to race each other all the way to Washington. The Girl flirts with the GTO, she teases him and very quickly he thinks he is in love with her. But really, this is a side story while the cars are even credited as actors in the end credits.

The early 1970's seemed to be a time when movies depicted certain kinds of unsettled characters through their relationship to traveling in the US and the endless roads. Think of Five Easy Pieces (1970) with Jack Nicholson for example. These may have also been the last innocent years of romanticizing cars and the freedom they offer without dealing with the consciousness caused by pollution.

The Girl was wonderful. I wanted to be her.

I've never totally got the Beach Boys. I really enjoy a few of their albums and I appreciate their influence (hello Animal Collective) but have never understood the critics' infatuation with the band. They must be the most written about band who have released the biggest number of crappy albums. Even the Stones have a better good to bad ratio. A couple of years ago the late wild boy of the Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson, had a solo album (Pacific Ocean Blue) re-issued which everyone claimed was the second coming. To me it sounded like Joe Cocker doing late period Phil Collins. In your wildest nightmares can you imagine that combination? Not good.

So we come to Two-Lane Blacktop, a movie I'd not seen before but read a lot about. "Cult classic!" "The best performances by rock stars in a movie ever!" Yes, you got it, Dennis Wilson is in it. But this time they were right, Two- Lane Blacktop is great. There is no plot really, no emotion, no great script. Just realism and lots of car talk.
The Driver, played by James Taylor (better and cooler in this than any song he ever sung) and The Mechanic (Wilson) travel around America in a Primer Grey 55 Chevy entering Drag Races for money. Every word Wilson's character spews is related to the spark plugs, converters, tires etc. Taylor just drives. They pick up a girl (The Girl, played by Laurie Bird) and she just listens to more car talk. What gives the film extra gravitas for me is Peckinpah regular, the great Warren Oates, who plays G.T.O. (he drives a Pontiac GTO).

Oates' character is a man who tells lots of lies and drives his Pontiac around and picks up sundry hitch-hikers. He challenges the two main protagonists to a race. That's all that happens really, apart from a lot of driving. It's worth noting that Tarrantino's awful film Death Proof borrowed heavily from this and Vanishing Point without coming anywhere near the depth and style of either film. Two-Lane Blacktop is a Zen road movie about cars. It's in love with the roar of the engine and burning rubber. No film has explored the relationship between man and car better than this one. This could be one of the best films I've ever seen. Or not. It's certainly strange and original. I don't even drive a car and enjoyed this.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

24 Hour Party People (2002) Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Nick :
I bought Closer by Joy Division the day it came out. I was 14 years old. I also bought records and saw shows by the likes of the Stockholm Monsters, The Wake, A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column and others. When I was 15 I went to New Order's first official London show. Me and my friends managed to sneak backstage to meet the band after the show. I always remember arguing with Barney why he should give me one of his plectrums. "Too Fooking expensive! These cost 17 pence in Manchester". I retorted that plectrums cost 20 pence in the rich south. He never gave me the plectrum. To quote the title of an early Joy Division release, Factory was an Ideal For Living. It was THE record label for me. The record covers, the look of the bands, every Factory item having a catalog number, the politics of the label and Manchester. So when 24 Hour Party People was released, I was drawn to the film as the Factory Records story was a big part culturally of my early teen years.
Winterbottom avoids the usual myth making and sentimentality of the Rock Music bio pic. He directs with energy and grit. The look of the film is realistic documentary style. He captures the humor, drugs, fatality, spirit and idealism of the Manchester music scene at this time. The only performance of note is that of Steve Coogan, excellent as Factory Records boss Tony Wilson. Through Wilson we get his take on the story of Joy Division, record producer Martin Hannett, The Happy Mondays and how the Hacienda become the most celebrated night club of it's generation. And we get the social importance and impact of Factory Records on Wilson's beloved Manchester.
Much better than Anton Corbijn's overly reverent Control film, which covers some of this history, 24 Hour Party People is a blast. Whether you know anything about Factory or not, this is an entertaining, funny film on any level. Not only one of the best British films of recent years, it sets new standards for the rock bio pic. Classic.

I remember going to see this film in the cinema many years ago. We walked in and Nick had been excited and talking about the bands and their meaning culturally for hours. Maybe days. So we had great expectations. I was entertained, Nick was probably in tears by the end of it.

24hour Party People is an informative documentary-like picture about Manchester, a specific period in time and about English culture. To my liking it is a little bit shabby, the picture quality is awful and the aesthetics lacking. This all makes it quite honest, I know, and the very annoying
contextualizing (talking to the movie audience) by the Tony Wilson character reminds me of something specifically English. This is quite hard to put into words, but it is the admirable ability to live in such a small space, in tiny houses and on small roads, with so much difference and poverty and extreme riches, the Queen and the politics, pop and history. History is important, because it seeps through and intelligent Britons have a vast pool of culture to contextualize everything with, if they want to. That's where someone like Tony Wilson, the real person, obviously had enormous talent. Maybe it's also a culture where change has been embraced relatively quickly. I don't know, but this movie has that pace, a truthful touch, which makes it not so much a cinematic experience, but a comment on some reality.

Marathon Man (1976) Directed By John Schlesinger

Marathon Man, a 1970's thriller with Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier and Roy Scheider. Should be quality. And that's how it starts: good looking photography, Dustin running in New York and a car chase with old men in their 70s. I was actually laughing and sitting comfortably on the sofa. I trusted that this film would have brains, even though I knew it would be a tense thriller and I had read that there is a sadistic nazi involved.

But then the tensity just built and I started sweating because there were bombs inside babies and Japanese murderers at loose. And to cut into what really upset me: the bloody blond nazi man (Laurence Olivier). With this most obvious villain characterizations of all, the film was desperately making sure that we (the audience) know where to direct our emotional responses.
–Lets just milk that old cow some more and leave the rest of the movie without any content.
Sure, nazis are still upsetting as hell and this one's love for dental torture is a nice touch. Do you get it? Torture!

At this point I was going to walk out on this movie. I knew that none of the characters were to be trusted as 'good' except for our hero, Dustin. So there was no intensity left, just disappointed anger.

This is the first film we've watched in an age where Astrid actually found it offensive. It's quite weird that this potboiler of a thriller should cause the offense. It did raise some other questions to me. The dental torture scenes in this film (which were more sound and suggestion than actually seeing anything) had a strange echo of what we know has been happening amongst government secret services around the world in current times. I'm not trying to give the film more importance than it has, but my question is : showing sadist acts on screen, is it necessary and does cinema have to censor itself (maybe more so in the case of a routine thriller)? Is it not good that cinema makes us face some harsh realities, even if out of context? Bottom line is, real people get tortured everyday.
The film is a basic revenge thriller about an undergraduate (Dustin Hoffman) who gets involved in some old Nazi's (Laurence Olivier) plot to collect some diamonds in New York. The Marathon Man in the title really is about the Hoffman character being a runner and hence the way he escapes the torturing bad guys. They even have some reference to McCarthyism, Chicago riots and leftist politics in the script to give the film some credibility, but you never buy it.
William Goldman, the highly rated screenwriter and novelist wrote this nonsense. Like Hoffman and Olivier, you wonder what made him do it. The film looks great, as most 70's movies do nowadays, and Schlesinger directs with pace. Roy Scheider steals the film as the top assasin Doc, but unfortunately he get's bumped off half way through and it's at that point we're left with lots of running, shooting and over the top hamming up from Olivier and Hoffman.
I can understand people even rating this film, but it's all surface. It will appeal to those who claim that the Bourne trilogy are actually serious art house movies and not just the clinical action thrillers they really are.
But to paraphrase the film, "Is It Safe?" watching this movie? Not if you want more meaning.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Running with Scissors (2006) Directed by Ryan Murphy

Nick :
Running With Scissors is an adaptation of Augusten Burroughs famed autobiography mainly dealing with his separation from his parents, especially his abandonment by his unstable mother Deirdre (Annette Bening). Deirdre has Augusten adopted by her therapist Dr Finch (Brian Cox) and he becomes part of Finch's family of unconventional outcasts.
Everything about this film is a nod to Wes Anderson and especially The Royal Tenenbaums. The 70's soundtrack (excellent), the 70's decor (great sets) the eccentric family which has Gwyneth Paltrow as a member. The Brian Cox character is even a bit like Bill Murray. Director Murphy has decided to try on someone else's shoes (Anderson's) to tell Burroughs story.
This is one of those films saved by great acting and a decent script.
The reason to watch this is Annette Bening who keeps showing us what an amazing actress she is. Her Deirdre Burroughs abandons her son in pursuit of artistic exploits, becomes addicted to Dr Finch's medication, realizes she's lesbian and in the end, is in turn abandoned by her son Augusten. Bening makes all this believable. She's well supported by Brian Cox, Jill Clayburgh and an excellent Evan Rachel Wood. Joseph Cross who plays the 14 year old Burroughs is good but looks too old and a little too much like Tom Hanks. Creepy. Its also worth noting it has the only use of Al Stewart's Year Of The Cat in a Hollywood film that I've ever seen.
I enjoyed this film. Watching Running With Scissors felt like rummaging through second hand furniture and sometimes that distinct familiarity is OK.

Mother who is mentally unstable and refers to Anne Sexton (the poet) in her life and poetry class. Yes, I must like it! I am a sucker for these kinds of family depictions – especially when we learn that Augusten really is a person and he really survived his horrible and unconventional childhood. There is something way too dramatic and unreal about this story, and yet I know that this is exactly how disfunctional families often are. For real.

But let me discuss the mother of Augusten more because she was fascinating from a few perspectives: Deirdre is played by Annette Bening, the excellent actress (although Hollywood doesn't think she is beautiful enough apparently). Since the 1990's she is also the wife of Warren Beatty (I get to mention him again). Ok, I hate/love writing that last sentence, but I was reading the worst book ever (you only need to read the name to know what it's like: The Sexiest Man Alive: A Biography of Warren Beatty by Ellis Amburn) and in this book Annette Bening has her own chapter ('yes, yes Annette'). The book represents her as the ugly, cold, career-driven 30-year-old divorcee, who corners the famous womanizer Warren by getting pregnant on their first encounter. Thank you for that excellent analysis Ellis! I could not erase the echos of your empty deduction from my head while watching Bening as the failed artist and mother in Running With Scissors. In a peculiar way the character of the movie and her mental instability melted into the questions of what did Annette (the actress) really give up when she married Warren and had four children with him when she was at the prime of her movie making years in Hollywood? Has she had it all (great roles= good career, love=Warren and the kids and the multiple homes and holidays) or did she have to choose and compromise? Ok, I am seriously curious about this one. But who knows the answer?

Back to the movie: Deirdre is married to a man who drinks too much and remains detached emotionally. They finally divorce when their son is 12 and Deirdre's shrink gets to rule over her and her son's world to the point where he adopts Augusten and takes all of D's money without her realizing. So she is again abused by a man (the shrink) but as she is freed from the oppression of her marriage (and because she really is mad, I think) she doesn't realize the extend of things. She is completely selfish in her choices – gets rid of her son, becomes a lesbian, does drugs (legal and illegal), writes her (crappy) poetry and believes to be on her way to unraveling her true creativity (and being published in the New Yorker). She becomes a kind of monster from the perspective of the son. Yet, I feel the movie and Augusten (the writer of the book that this film is based on) remain somewhat sympathetic towards her. There is a strange love in the film's portrayal of everyone, all its faulty broken characters. Almost as if no judgment needs to be passed despite everything.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Directed by Arthur Penn

Nick :
As I've been feeling ill (flue again!) and it was a long tiring day, we decided to watch something a bit more entertaining. Of course Bonnie & Clyde has been proclaimed the movie that changed American cinema forever. The violence and sexual content of Bonnie & Clyde ushered in a new mentality in American film that would bear richer fruits than this in the early 70's. Bonnie & Clyde was also seen as an American answer to the new, radical European Cinema, especially the French New Wave. It's influence in a large context has been big.

What's interesting watching Bonnie & Clyde now is how quaint and traditional the film seems. Yes, the violence is of a Peckinpah stylized variety. The sexual subtext (Clyde's impotency), is of course cured by the film's end. But the storytelling is so Hollywood, it's hard to believe this film was so shocking at the time. Beatty seems miscast as Clyde, he's surely too intelligent to be playing such a hick? Dunaway looks great, but like the whole film there is little depth to her performance. One can dream of Belmondo and Bardot as the lead actors and how dirty, dangerous and seedy that would have been. Penn inserts some documentary style scenes that keep things real while Gene Hackman and the very cool Michael J. Pollard take the acting plaudits.

Yes, this does romanticize Bonnie & Clyde in such a lighthearted way that nothing bad they do is that bad and perhaps that's the biggest influence of the film. It's OK to root for the bad guy. Still, Bonnie & Clyde is a watchable blast of an action movie. It was a lot of fun revisiting this landmark movie.

Having seen Bonnie and Clyde a couple times before, I wanted to watch it now as I have just read about it in Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Without knowing about its history and standing (it marks the beginning of New Hollywood), this film has seemed odd to me:
A very conventional representation of the South, an idealization of two young bank robbers without much of a story, very much style and little else... All the while Nick has been going on to me how this is an amazing piece of cinema, thus adding to the sense that I should appreciate it more.

This time my experience was set by what I had been reading. I was watching Warren Beatty (with a way too tanned and sweet look) who had fought with the old Hollywood to make this film happen. I could see the massive influence of Goddard's Pierrot Le Fou, and how it needed to be
translated into Hollywood terms to ever turn into Bonnie and Clyde. Beatty's character Clyde is so one-sided in the end that all I know about him is his struggled to have hetero sex. I also know that at one stage of scripting the film there was going to be a strong third male party in the film and a ménage à trois. This idea was too much for Beatty, and thus we end up with the on-going theme of impotence and its unnecessary ending on a field with a happy Bonnie and an extatic Clyde asking if it was any good. Why? This is the kind of conventionalism that spoils much of the fun and closes possibilities for more versatile interpretations.

Something important disappears in this Hollywood watering down of the French New Wave. Bonnie and Clyde feels paper thin because of its need to follow a linear storyline, and because of its conventional solutions to questions of sexuality and gender. It seems that after getting the audience to sympathize with the bank robbers the film does not know where to chuck that sympathy. There is no use for it because there is no emotional content. But oh, does the surface gleam and shine. I love Bonnie in her beret forever.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

State of Play (2009) Directed by Kevin Macdonald

State Of Play is a Hollywood adaptation of The BBC TV-series of the same name from a few years back. Of course the story has been relocated from England to the USA. Kevin MacDonald has some form as an excellent documentary maker (One Day In September, Touching the Void) and of the celebrated (though in my opinion overrated) Last King Of Scotland.
This version of State Of Play is in awe of the journalistic/political cinema landmarks of director Alan J. Pakula, All The President's Men and The Parallax View. State Of Play hints at that level of film making but never carries the required intelligence to make us care.

Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, grizzled Washington Globe reporter, who's close friend congressmen Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is implicated in the death of his research assistant, and as it happens, mistress. McAffrey puts all on the line to clear his friends' name and finds a conspiracy behind the story that runs deep and high. The problem with State Of Play is it's littered with average performances (Hello Affleck, Rachel McAdams) and takes an age to get going. MacDonald over-emphasizes the conspiracy/big brother concept by inserting plenty of long shots that suggest we're being watched. It's tiresome and seriously interrupts the flow of the film.

Helen Mirren has all the best lines as the tough editor of the Globe, but ultimately what makes this film more than watchable is...Russell Crowe. I always struggle at the thought of Russell Crowe but then when I watch him in a film I'm always surprised at how good he is. He does it again here, amongst all the cold, flashy Bourne-like editing and slick Hollywood production values, Crowe's McAffrey is refreshing, he's the only 3D character in this film. Unfortunately for us and Crowe, his excellent performance deserves a better film than this.

I was kind of against watching this movie to begin with. I don't love Ben or Russell or the director's other movies (Last King of Scotland). Visually this film was exactly what I thought it would be: clinical, cold as stone, add-like, unimaginative. Why do we have to utilize all this technology just to make everything look uniform, fast and boring? Where is the grit, the dirt, the greases, the accidents that turn into meaningful classics by chance? This coldness is added to by over-dubbing all dialogue in the movie. Even in gale wind outdoors, Russell's low voice is compressed and de-SSSSed and sounds like he should be selling us coffee.
If you can choose between All the President's Men and this, why would you watch State of Play? I'm sure the British TV-series that the film was a remake of, is also much more worth watching.

In this movie journalists talk about blogging as if it was something new to which they are still adapting to. Politicians are involved in privatizing military operations and Iraq and Afghanistan are on the news. This is supposed to make us feel that things are happening right on the pulse here. Is this the best script writing that Hollywood can buy, really?

Ok, so the scene in the garage was gripping. For five minutes I was worried that Russell would be killed. But that would have been too risky in a Hollywood production from the 2000s.

Monday, February 15, 2010

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) Directed By Robert Altman

I am slowly warming up to appreciate Warren Beatty. He's best with a beard and way too American and sweet without it (except for in Reds, where he is just fine). Julie Christie is divine. Robert Altman and the 1970s; good good good.

Last time I watched McCabe & Mrs.Miller it blew past me leaving almost no trace. The town hookers were sympathetic, McCabe idiotic, and the end scene gripping. Somehow I didn't care though. This time I'm a fan: Altman's theater-like use of natural sound; the incredible set of frontier homes in the harsh winter snow and slosh. There is a sense in watching this film that the camera just entered at one point and leaves at another, but this village will go on living its very real life. Beatty's McCabe comes to the village with bravado, he builds a gambling house and a whore house, but then big business turns up in the village demanding to buy McCabe out of his business. Unlike usually in these movies, there is no gang of villagers supporting McCabe. There are no over-confident gunmen here, just people minding their own business. In contrast to Mrs. Miller (the mistress of the whore house played by Julie Christie), we learn that McCabe is actually more stubborn than smart. Mrs.Miller is the one making suggestions on how to make more money and the one who realizes that McCabe's life is in danger because he refused to sell his enterprise. Of course, a kind of love has developed between the two here, but a lose one with opium, liquor and circumstance in the middle. Nothing romantic here, although I am beginning to feel romantic about this American frontier life described here, and the 1970's as a cinematic era.

PS. I am worried that soon I publicly love all Westerns from this decade as well...

One of my favorite Robert Altman films and alongside The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid one of the best Westerns of the 1970's.
Warren Beatty plays the McCabe of the title, a cocky business man who builds a mining town and starts a whore house, which Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) runs. As the arrangement between McCabe and Miller becomes deeper than just business, McCabe's unwillingness to sell up to a large company leads to disaster.
Reasons to love this: a cockney Julie Christie, Leonard Cohen's soundtrack, Warren Beatty's hat and Vilmos Zsigmond's amazing cinematography.
This is still an Altman film and despite the big stars (Christie & Beatty) it's the little incidental scenes, the in jokes, the way the camera just observes that makes this film so special. People talk over each other and you're never quite sure what the focus of the scene is. Take a deep breath and realize this was once mainstream cinema.
This has atmosphere, this has realist beauty. Altman's Western is underrated and brilliant.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Synecdoche, New York (2008) Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Is it possible that Charlie Kaufman is the most honest and personal screenwriter in cinema today? Through his scripts for Being John Malkovich, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Adaptation he has slowly been revealing himself, peeling back the skin, so what we've seen so far are different Kaufman personas. And he doesn't mind focusing on the imperfections, he just let's it all hang out! I'm a fan.

This autobiographical trend continues with his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York. It's amazing to me that this film is being billed as a comedy."Hilarious" was how Metro described it, " The Smash Hit Comedy Of The Year" proclaims the DVD box. This has to be one of the saddest, depressing, beautiful, confusing, self indulgent, cruel and very, very, very slow two hour meditations on how hard life is and then we die films I've ever had the discomfort of sitting through.

The ever reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theater director who struggles with work, the women in his life and with his health. That's a very condensed description and there is so much more (a lifetime's work perhaps?) Kaufman's usual themes of duplicity, paranoia, dream like states and a general sense of not knowing what the hell is going on are all present as literally decades roll by on the screen. You could say this film is annoying, stupid and brave and you'd be correct. You can also say that no one has ever tried anything like this before, so it's certainly original. There are many great performances, especially from the likes of Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan and Catherine Keener. Jon Brion supplies a touching score.

For me this film had many moving moments and although I was lost at times I felt I gained a greater understanding of who Charlie Kaufman is. Or did I, was it really Charlie? Once again the boundaries are beyond blurred. But was it any good I ask myself? It's certainly conflicting. And I can say Synecdoche, New York was a fascinating, ambitious film that I can see myself returning to many times. Confused? You will be.

As you may guess, we have shared a love for all things Kaufman here. He has combined intelligence, endless imagination, precise aesthetic, misery, realism, death and romance so beautifully before. His scripts and casting are always a delight. I had been looking forward to seeing Synechdoche, New York for a long time now. I don't think it even opened at cinema theaters in Helsinki at all, which made me wonder...

The film begins and immediately seems odd (as expected) but linear. It moves slowly, some characters come and then disappear completely (never to appear again, and I realize this really happens in life too). Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is miserable, left alone, ugly and ill all the time. Little by little I move from feeling sorry for him to feeling annoyed at the movie. Then for the second hour I am angry. The messy layers of varying perspectives and the basic notion that everyone is dying (within and outside the frames of this film) create a perfect sense of disconnection. Meaninglessness.

Kaufman has created an experience and a reminder in the form of a film. There is nothing gross or surprising in it. The simple banality of death is enough. I appreciated this very much, but it will be impossible to get me to watch it again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bronco Billy (1980) Directed By Clint Eastwood

After reading a slandering and biased biography on Clint last fall, I have developed a new kind of curiosity for the man. Well, yes, he already appeared in my lyrics before reading this book...Clint is the other house-hold god in our address (the first one being Woody); one that we respect, love, argue about, even hate, but always revert back to.

Bronco Billy then: It opens with the worst opening song I have ever heard. Bad country music.
It simply does not set any kind of mood except that of standing in line at a gas station waiting to pee after a long drive to nowhere. No, even that was too much of a mood. And while listening to this song I cannot shake the thought that Clint owns this rubbish song so as to make money also on it's air performances and so on. Clever.

The movie is much better than the song. Bronco Billy is the owner of a pathetic Wild West Show.
He is poor, not so great at his craft, but hey, he's got a heart in the right place and some right-on principles (eat your oatmeal, don't fall for hard liquor and cigarettes, say your prayers).
The film attempts to reveal Billy as a multifaceted character with a conventional past gone wrong. He is originally a city kid with no knowledge of cowboys and Indians. He was married but his wife had an affair with his best friend...

Of course, at the heart of this movie there is a love story. I don't need to go into it much, but curious details prevail: after Billy has saved his love interest from rape, he himself attempts to kiss her and more. Is this a joke? Guess what, they fall asleep leaning on each other and later after much refusal from the lady, she throws herself onto Billy. Having sex changes her character from cold bitch to brainless squealing softie in one second. Thank you Mr. director. I can appreciate Clint for straightening the lines, but sometimes his directness becomes idiotic and undermines any real character development.

I was entertained. I felt like I was watching a children's movie and yet, I wouldn't want children to see this one.

Sometimes it's hard being an Eastwood fan. Yes, he's a left leaning republican. Yes, he represents some old macho values and probably supports the use of hand guns and the death penalty. He's probably anti-abortion (though been responsible for a few over the years!) But for me, he's also one of the great artists of American Cinema. You don't have to share a political ideology to admire someone's work. In fact it's been interesting over the years to watch Clint spew liberal ideas and themes from a right wing perspective.

Eastwood has described Bronco Billy as his Frank Capra moment and yes this film is old fashioned, but mostly in the sense that the central character, Bronco Billy (Eastwood, great) is a man out of time, a Cowboy and the fastest draw in the West. Of course, this being 1980, nobody really needs Bronco's western values and morality. A Traveling Cowboy show with Bronco Billy being the main attraction of a bunch of misfits bringing good old Western entertainment to half empty audiences in the mid west. Sandra Locke plays an heiress mistaken for dead who joins Bronco's show as his assistant. A love/hate relationship ensues until Eastwood get's the girl. The mantra throughout is be who you wanna be.

This film offers many small chuckles and a great set of performances (Sandra Locke, Geoffrey Lewis and Scatman Crothers). It's also another example of Eastwood gently mocking his Man With No Name persona. At the time of this film's release, Eastwood was the biggest box office draw in the world. This offbeat film offers another example of Eastwood taking risks and defying his audiences expectations and notions of who he is . A small treasure.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Celebrity (1998) Directed by Woody Allen

Nick :
I was quite confused watching Celebrity. It said on the box written and directed by Woody Allen, yet it felt like I was watching a poor late period Robert Altman movie. Lee (Kenneth Branagh) and Robin (Judy Davis) go there separate way after 16 years of marriage. Allen's film follows there contrasting love lives after the divorce. This movie is also some vague comment on the nature of Celebrity and it's various levels of. This is one of those Woody films where people say Fuck a lot and the always excellent Black & White cinematography is often stunning. Branagh plays this film's Woody persona and of course it's a direct impersonation. That must be weird directing someone impersonating you who has captured every mannerism and vocal inflection perfectly. Branagh and his character annoy, on the other hand Judy Davis is ever reliable turning in the only performance in the film that at least attempts to keep you interested. There are also some fine cameos most notably Leonardo DiCaprio as a coke snorting self destructive actor and Charlize Theron as a nymphomaniac supermodel. You can also find drifting in and out of scenes the likes of Melanie Griffith, Winona Ryder, Joe Mantegna, Gretchen Moll and Bebe Neuwirth. This film really did nothing for me, its attempts at humor were poor and strangely for a Woody Allen film characters that were vacuous and uninteresting. A cynical bore fest.

Ok. I am back at home and haven't seen a movie for two weeks. It seems like a good idea to start safest: Woody, please. But hey, what has happened? Celebrity is the most un-woody-like Allen film I have seen. I thought he could always be trusted, but now I feel Woody has been lost just like everyone else. The script is not funny, it is bitsy and unattached. Charlize Theron and other amazing beauties appear in the film just to titillate, nothing more. Even I do not believe that these girls could be intelligent. Young Leonardo DeCaprio is probably the most entertaining camio in the movie, but what does it have to do with W.A. humour? Nothing. And what the hell, my pet-hate most annoying actress of the 1990's Winona Ryder is supposed to be the central tits&brains package of this disjointed black&white bore. Woody, were you just trying to be current here? Even your irony was lost on me.
(After-thought: I am so exhausted after the last two weeks of my life that it could be I missed all the jokes and wit because I had nothing in my brain.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Batman Begins (2005) & The Dark Knight (2008) Directed by Christopher Nolan

Knowing that Astrid isn't a big fan of these films, I thought I'd watch the Nolan movies back to back before she comes home.
Batman Begins is the origin of how the caped crusader came to be. Christian Bale plays the Batman/Bruce Wayne protagonist with the right amount of American Psycho for Wayne and the requisite steeliness for Batman. Unfortunately it's very hard to feel much for Bale as an actor, although he is a fine one. I don't have empathy with Bale as this character. I feel that Nolan knows this so a supporting cast of amongst others, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy and a poorly cast Katie Holmes try to fill that space. Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon is the peace in this film. Oldman finding a role where he can downplay for a change, amongst the shouting and fighting his humble presence gives the film some well needed contrast to the often overwhelming action.
Nothing in Nolan's previous films suggest he would be able to handle such blockbusters. The technical aspects are superb. Great set pieces fill the screen with little use of the overused CGI. Nolan prefers to keep things real. Unfortunately the film is half an hour too long and with no one on screen to identify with the last part is hard work. Still, this is a bold attempt to bring some life back into a franchise that had been quite abused with the dreadful Batman Forever.

The sequel, The Dark Knight is a more accomplished film and holds more interest. It's hard to believe this is the 5th most successful film in cinema history. What drew audiences to such a nihilistic movie? The Joker as played by Heath Ledger is a revelation. His anarchy, chaos theory and terrorist beliefs play on the 9/11 paranoia which I factor was a big part of the films appeal. The Joker's terrorizing of Gotham and dueling with the Batman is dark fun. Of course, they compliment each other and Nolan at least broaches the subject of vigilantism with the Batman character. The casting has also improved and although the likes of Bale, Caine, Oldman and Freeman return, replacing Katie Holmes' Rachel Dawes character with Maggie Gyllenhaal was a good idea. Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent/ Two Face also gives the film a threesome of central performances to cling to.
This film also boasts one of the best car chases in recent times. The truck driving mash up through winding under passes is inspired. Nolan's eye for a skydiving set piece is thrilling cinema also, you almost feel vertigo in some scenes. When Batman and The Joker share the screen there is an intense chemistry, it's electric viewing. A big influence on the look must have been Heat, The Dark Knight certainly shares a similar aesthetic to Mann's LA based heist movie.
A let down and spoiler is Nolan once again making his film too long. A shorter Dark Knight would have elevated it's worth.
As some claim, Nolan's film is a on the face of it a political treatise on what state we're in. I think he's trying to say that everything is chaos and fucked up and maybe we are looking for a Batman to sort everything out, weather he's good or not. Not so deep then. The final scene with Batman running into the shadows as a wanted man is a nice nod from Nolan to the classic western Shane. So what next for the Batman films, how does Nolan follow this? If Nolan waits twenty years and adapts Frank Miller's excellent The Dark Knight Returns, that would be worth the wait.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Great Silence (1968) Directed by Sergio Corbucci

Nick :
Even for the sometime eccentric Spaghetti Western genre The Great Silence (aka Il Grande Silenzio) reaches new levels of weirdness. Corbucci had already earned his spurs with the violent yet terrific Django. He was also an obvious follower of that other Sergio, Leone. In the Italian Western genre he's regarded as influential.
Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the Silence of the title, a mute gunfighter (that's right, he doesn't utter a word the whole film) and well know champion of the downtrodden who arrives in Snowhill, a small town in Nevada. Silence has been summoned by Pauline (the beautiful Vonetta McGee) to exact revenge against bounty hunter Loco (a superbly twisted Klaus Kinksi) for the killing of her husband. The revenge aspect is as conventional as this Western gets.
The Great Silence is set in deep snowy surroundings, Corbucci using the white mountainous planes to great effect. As is almost obligatory, Ennio Morricone supplies a great score, which as usual adds so much to what's on display. The theme to the love scene between Trintignant and McGee is especially touching. Of course this being Corbucci, the violence is plentiful and the blood stands out against the white. It's worth noting also that the editing and dubbing are pretty woeful, but what is one to expect from a little seen Italian Western?
The finale between Silence and Loco, assisted by tense tones from Morricone is unexpected and shocking. It stays with you. Ultimately, the bleak denouement raises this original film above the level of curiosity and into the realms of greatness. Worth a look.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

From Here To Eternity (1953) Directed By Fred Zinnemann

As the legend used to go , before Brando, before Dean there was...Montgomery Clift. As a teenager I developed a serious crush on Clift. I read all the books going (Patrica Bosworth's biography is best if interested) and watched all the movies. Dexys Midnight Runners had him on the cover of the There, There, My Dear single and both The Clash and REM have sung songs about him. Truffaut was obsessed with his eyes. The young Elizabeth Taylor was infatuated by him. He turned down the lead roles in High Noon, On The Waterfront, East Of Eden and Sunset Boulevard. Others profited from his poor choices. Yet the choices he did make were not often great. In a lot of his films, Clift is often the only good thing about them. He always played the conflicted outsider and in many ways, he was the original method actor. He had one of the most tragic film star lives. He drank and popped pills and never reconciled himself over his homosexuality. He had a bad car crash in 1957 that left half his face paralyzed and destroyed his good looks. The before and after the crash movies are always easy to spot. He died aged 44 a cracked actor, uninsurable and alone. Too old to become legendary yet.... still very young. And he has largely been forgotten. For those of us in the know, he's the real deal.
From Here To Eternity is almost the quintessential Clift movie. That doesn't make it his best but in some ways it's the one which carries his essence most. Clift plays Robert E Lee Prewitt, a private in the Navy who refuses to fight for the regiment's boxing team. The company turn the screws and give him the "treatment" which in effect relegates Clift to the level of the company dog. His stubbornness and will not to give in make him the eternal outsider. There are many romantic sub plots and melodramas played out in this film. It is like watching an overblown soap opera at times. They even manage to fit in the invasion of Pearl Harbor. The film won Oscars and was a huge commercial success.
The cast for this film is like a Hollywood who's who. Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Jack Warden and Ernest Borgnine. All the performances are great, and for Kerr and Sinatra this was a career saving movie. The script is sharp and although it tones down a lot of the adult themes of James Jones' source novel, it still must have seemed risky in 1953. Zinnemann adopts a neo-realist look for the film which sometimes work's but some times looks flat. The direction plods at times. However, this film does boast one iconic cinema moment, Kerr and Lancaster rolling around in a lovers embrace amongst the sand and the waves. I don't think this film is so well regarded these days, it's critical standing has certainly faded over the years. But don't let that put you off.
It's hard for me to be remotely objective about this film. It reminds me of a time when life was so less complicated. And at the heart of the film there's the outsider sensitivity of the late, great and forgotten Montgomery Clift. An all time fave.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

L.A. Confidential (1997) Directed by Curtis Hanson

Being a huge James Ellroy fan and of Film Noir in general, I actually went to see this at The Cinema on release. Watching the film again (it's maybe my fourth time), it confirms to me that Hollywood cant do Ellroy. Let's not even broach the subject of De Palma's Black Dahlia. L.A. Confidential comes from Ellroy's famed L.A. Quartet of novels. The story is principally about three L.A. policemen investigating a diner shooting and discovering mass police corruption and of course, this being Ellroy, there are many strands to follow. It somehow misses the sweat and seediness that Ellroy brings to this story in his book. Hanson depicts 50's L.A. as far too pristine, every shot too studied in 'this is an important film' kinda way. This movie is slick. It also has a lot going for it. Acting is generally excellent, with Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey and James Cromwell all putting in good turns. Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger take the acting honors for me. Their scenes together have real chemistry. Crowe especially captures the spirit of Ellroy's Bud White. This was something of a comeback for Basinger and her Lynn Bracken lights up the screen with just the right amount of mature sexiness.
Of course, any modern Noir set in L.A. during this period will suffer poorly with comparisons to Polanski's Chinatown, but it's also fair to say that most movies would suffer those comparisons. This is a good movie rather than a great one and unfortunately Hanson can't resist the Hollywood cheese ending. A disappointment on some levels then, especially when you take into account the rather excellent source material and what could of been if directed by someone else (David Lynch perhaps?) Lets see if the George Clooney starring adaptation of White Jazz due this year will give Ellroy some celluloid justice.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Duck, You Sucker (1971) Directed by Sergio Leone

This quote is the first thing we see in Leone's Duck, You Sucker (aka: A Fistful of Dynamite or Once Upon A Time.... A Revolution). Having re-invented the Western genre in the mid 60's with The Dollars Trilogy through candid, cool realism and violence, Leone followed these films with the creation of the Western Opera with Once Upon A Time In The West. With Duck, You Sucker he arguably invented the political Western. Often regarded as the middle film of the trilogy that makes up West/America, Duck,You Sucker is the least celebrated of Leone's post Dollars movies. It's rarely seen and was a commercial flop at the time. American audiences didn't understand the left leaning politics and the subtle emotion. Leone was hurt by it's failure and didn't make another film for over a decade after it's release. It's hard to understand as this is a breathtaking, wonderfully realized epic. I love this film. The times I've watched it, the emotional thrust of the film always creeps up on me, as if I'd forgotten it was there.
The film in essence is about the friendship that forms between an IRA terrorist and explosives expert John Mallory (James Coburn) and Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), a Mexican bandit who leads his family in robbing the rich. Mallory is on the run in Mexico and wanted by the British government for terrorist crimes. Juan, not really bothered about any revolutionary ideals, feels Mallory with his explosive tricks can help him rob the bank of a small Mexican town.Through this premise the two become mixed up with and end up aiding the revolutionaries against the Mexican military junta. This is a simple synopsis, as Duck, You Sucker offers so much more.
Coburn and Steiger are both excellent in the lead roles, often portraying humor, regret and sadness within the same scene.
The relationship between Mallory and Miranda is slowly built up during the film. It grows out of grudging respect, mutual regrets and dreams of a better life.
A lot of the film is just Leone's vision and Morricone's score, dialogue rarely intrudes. Has there been a better Director / Composer combination in the history of cinema? Ennio Morricone's score brings so much emotion. Leone's vision is epic, yet intimate and detailed when needed, each scene filled with rich color and texture. The first hour of the film is often crude and funny, with a gentle humor to the fore. Then a sadness takes over the film that never lets you go. Heartbreaking at times, Duck, you Sucker offers some simple, worthy political ideals. But it's real message is emphasizing the true value of friendship during adversity . A must see. Power To The People!