Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Wake in Fright
Dir: Ted Kotcheff

Wake in Fright (also known as Outback in some countries) is a cracking Australian thriller film directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence and Chips Rafferty. The screenplay, written by Evan Jones, is based on Kenneth Cook's 1961 novel of the same name. It's a thriller bordering on horror, a story of a young schoolteacher from Sydney who descends into personal moral degradation after finding himself stranded in a brutal and menacing town in outback Australia. Gary Bond plays John Grant, a well-spoken teacher who is disgruntled because of the onerous terms of a financial bond which he signed with the government in return for receiving a tertiary education which has forced him to take up a job teaching in a tiny school at Tiboonda, a remote township in the arid Australian Outback. On the last day of term before the Christmas holidays, Grant heads straight for the train station to catch a train to Bundanyabba (known as "the Yabba” by the locals) in order to catch a Sydney-bound flight where he plans on visiting his girlfriend. However, he soon finds himself relaxing in the Yabba, drinking with the locals and engaging in a local gambling circuit. Grant almost succeeds in winning enough money to pay off the bond but he pushes it too far and everything comes tumbling down on top of him. After losing all his money, including his air fare, Grant finds himself on a downward spiral of drinking, excepting the forced charity of the friendly yet aggressive locals and becomes lost in a world he finds hard to escape. This isn't your typical 'city folk lost in the wilderness' horror though, it is far more complex than that. Grant is somewhat arrogant but he also allows himself to get lost, it's as if he, for the first time, has truly let himself be free and he doesn't know quite how to handle it. The locals are always friendly, polite and would do anything for you. Strangers are very much welcome and this is what makes the film so uniquely special. There is no secret society or secret plot, the locals are genuinely kind and generous. They're proper Ozzy blokes but no one is ever ostracized. The only rule is that when someone offers you a drink, you accept, to decline would be a mistake. It's an escape movie without a prison, a horror without a bad guy. It delves right into the darkness of temptation that lies in all of us, shows you the horrors of alcoholism while making you thirsty for a beer at the same time. For many years, Wake in Fright was regarded as Australia's great "lost film" because of its unavailability on VHS or DVD, as well as its absence from television broadcasts. It is now considered a seminal film of the Australian New Wave and has been ranked by critics as one of the greatest Australian films ever made. I've often thought Australian film is largely overlooked and the fact that so few people know of Wake in Fright is a good example. Dirk Bogarde and the director Joseph Losey wanted to make an adaptation seven years previous but I'm glad they didn't. I can't help but think Kotcheff's First Blood wouldn't have been quite the same had he not learned a few tricks with Wake in Fright. Gary Bond is great in it but Donald Pleasence's performance is among his best and most overlooked. The infamous Kangaroo shooting scene is still questionable, the Kangaroos were being culled in order to keep the population down but many of them aren't killed instantly, making for unpleasant viewing. However, this isn't meant for entertainment, what was going to happen anyway was filmed and I think the film benefits from it enough for it to be included. Sometimes we need to see the true horror of our actions to understand ourselves and to prevent future suffering.
Dir: John Sayles
Stephen Holden, the film critic for The New York Times was disappointed in the film script and wrote, "While operating on a mythic level Honeydripper also wants to create the same kind of top-to-bottom social microcosm found in many of Mr. Sayles’s films. But this time his attempt to have his characters be simultaneously symbolic and real works at cross purposes. He is so uncomfortable writing dialogue in an old-time Southern argot that the conversations in Honeydripper rarely settle into the easy, colorfully idiomatic flow that has always been a hallmark of Southern speech. Hard as they try to break through the stiffness, the film’s fine actors only fitfully succeed in camouflaging the machinery behind their characters." I couldn't disagree more. Let's be honest, there are many people who think director John Sayles can't and shouldn't make black films, which is complete nonsense. Sayles knows structure, character, the blues and magic. Honeydripper is the perfect title for this film, it's sweet and will make you feel all gooey. I've never visited the Deep South or rural Alabama, certainly not in the 1950s but I’m not ignorant to the area or the time. I disagree with many critics who criticized what they saw as stereotypes. Indeed, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton and many other cast members, who are all brilliant, have stared in similar films and/or in similar roles. It's an endearing musical time-piece with Sayles perfect narrative style. There are moments of fantasy for those so inclined, religion, God, prayer and belief and how one should/could embrace such things is lightly explored and certain characters may be a little bigger than they might initially appear but this is never over done or imposing, and certainly never preachy. I'm not sure if it was intentional but I did wonder whether there was a connection between Gary Clark Jr's Sonny and the infamous Robert Johnson, whom it was believed sold his soul to the devil at a cross-road in Mississippi to achieve success and the ability to play heavenly guitar. The featured music is incredible and acts as the films big supporting actor. The performances are all good; Glover, Dutton, Clark Jr and leading ladies Lisa Gay Hamilton and Yaya DeCosta are all brilliant and believable. It’s a huge feel good film. I think that's what people, more importantly Sayles fans, were surprised by. It's true, this doesn't at all feel like a John Sayles film, but I'm totally fine with that. The story is a little cliché I'll admit but I really don't care and I would argue that it is better than any film that is like it. There are feel good films that try too hard and there are feel good films that are totally predictable, Honeydripper is effortlessly feel good and only a little predictable. I'll be honest and say that if Sayles only made films like this from now on I'd be disappointed but I will always stand up for Honeydripper, it is accomplished, genuine and about as charming as a film can get.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Return of the Musketeers
Dir: Richard Lester
Richard Lester's 1973 hit The Three Musketeers is a brilliant adventure and something of an unsung masterwork. His follow up, The Four Musketeers, was made from half of the footage that was unused due to length restraints. The producers, the Salkind brothers, decided to make two films from the many hours of footage they had without asking the permission - or more to the point, not paying the actors extra - thus receiving many lawsuits and a clause added to every member of the Screen Actors Guild protecting them from such deception in the future, named 'The Salkind Clause'. Only about a third of the cast return, mainly because their characters don't feature in Alexandre Dumas' novel Twenty Years After - which the film is loosely based on, and the actors that do return only did so because the Salkind's weren't involved and for their friend Richard Lester. I dare say it was something they all went on to regret, because as good as the film is, it is always remembered for its tragic end. It's not as funny or as charming as the original but it is far more a return to form than the sequel was. In all honesty it was very average, but nice to see what the Musketeers were up to and what their enemies had in store for them. However, it'll always be remembered for the film in which the much loved actor Roy Kinnear died. Due to a translation issue with the largely Spanish crew, a cobbled street was washed and left wet before the actors rode through on their horses. Roy Kinnear's horse slipped and he fell off breaking his pelvis. A day later he had a massive heart attack due to his injuries and died before filming was completed. Director and close friend Lester carried on filming as best he could. His role was completed by using a stand-in, filmed from the rear, and dubbed-in lines from a voice artist. Lester was so affected by the tragedy he never made another feature again, only getting behind the camera once more to film 1991's Get Back, a concert performed by his friend Paul McCartney. There is a lot to be said for the film. The changes to the source material are quite intriguing, the character of Mordaunt, Milady de Winter's son in the original novel, being replaced by Milady's daughter, called Justine de Winter (played by Kim Cattrall) works surprisingly well and I loved how Jean-Pierre Cassel, who played Louis XIII in the original films, has a cameo as Cyrano de Bergerac. It was also nice to see Christopher Lee return as Comte de Rochefort and Alan Howard made quite a good Oliver Cromwell. Bill Paterson is good as Charles I and Billy Connolly has a great little cameo as a Scottish golf caddie. It is close to the original but with obvious elements missing. The fact is that Alexandre Dumas' novel Twenty Years After is not as compelling as his Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask wouldn't have suited the tone set by the first film at all. However, for all that is good and for all that isn't quite as good, the film is a sad one due to the tragic loss of Roy Kinnear, so much so that it is incredibly hard to get into it or even love it. Average to be fair but I don't want to watch it again as it saddens me too much. Kinnear lived just a few roads from me as a child and he did much for the community and for local charities. I remember he would buy the town's Christmas tree every year and it was so sad that first festive season without him.
The Four Musketeers (AKA The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge)
Dir: Richard Lester
The Three Musketeers was a huge hit for Richard Lester, the Salkind brothers and everyone involved, however, it was only half the story. During the production producer brothers the Salkinds realized that the film was already so lengthy that they couldn't complete it as initially intended, as a roadshow epic with intermission and neither would they meet their announced release date. They decided instead to re edit what they had and release the film in two parts, with the second film, The Four Musketeers, released six months after the first. The problem was that they didn't tell anyone. The cast were incensed that their work on the long shoot was used to make an entirely separate film, while they were only being paid for the work of one. Lawsuits were filed on behalf of those contributing to the film to gain the salaries and benefits associated with a second film that was not mentioned in the original contracts. All Screen Actor Guild members contracts now have what is known as the "Salkind clause", which stipulates how many films are being made. I think because the film had been somewhat muddled and re-edited within an inch of its life, left the second film a far cry from the greatness of the first. Pretty much all of the charm of the first is absent in the sequel. The comedy that made the first film so great is tragically absent all the serious bits of Duma's novel are a little too serious compared to the original. It doesn't quite work. Clearly edited with a very tight deadline, it seems a bit ridiculous and a bit careless to release the sequel as they did. The film actually did quite well upon its release, the original still fresh in people's minds but looking back and comparing the two films all these years later reveals a huge contrast in quality in my opinion. I'm not sure the Musketeers had the send off they really deserved and clearly everyone who worked on the project left on a sour note. I don't think I've ever been so disappointed by a sequel, especially as I loved the first film so much. The performances are still good, the costumes, stunts and action, they're exactly the same obviously, it really is an example of how a film's editing can change everything. They clearly used all the funniest footage in the first film and left none for the sequel. At least Faye Dunaway had her chance to really shine, she is terrific in her villainous role, more so than you'd expect though with the first film in mind. The climax of the film is strange, disjointed and unpolished. It's such a terrible shame. Still, most of the cast returned in 1989 for The Return of the Musketeers, loosely based on Dumas' novel Twenty Year After, but it would be a project they would regret.
The Three Musketeers
Dir: Richard Lester
I've never really been interested in Alexandre Dumas's classic story of d'Artagnan and The Three Musketeers, other than in the Spanish/Japanese canine animated adaptation of the 80s - Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds - and Richard Lester's rather silly but utterly charming 1973 comedy. It's hard to believe now but the film was originally intended as a vehicle for The Beatles with whom Lester had directed in two other films. The film adheres closely to the novel, but also injects a fair amount of humor. It was shot by David Watkins, with an eye for period detail and the fight scenes were choreographed by master swordsman William Hobbs. The film was originally intended to be an epic which ran for three hours including an intermission, but during production, it was determined the film could not make its announced release date in that form, so a decision was made to split the long epic into two shorter features, the second part becoming 1974's The Four Musketeers. Superman fans will know the names Alexander and Iiya Salkind well, the infamous producers decided to split the first film into two after principal photography was completed. Many of the cast principals sued the Salkinds as a result, stating that they were only contracted to make one film, indeed, during an advanced screening attended by the cast, after the movie ended a trailer for The Four Musketeers was shown, which none of the cast had heard anything about until then. The film may have ended on a sour note but it is a glorious epic and something of an unsung hero in the comedy genre. I'm not too sure why Richard Lester was chosen as director but I can see a lot of his 1969 adaption of The Bed sitting Room in it and it works rather well. Michael York bounds into the film as the enthusiastic and naive d'Artagnan, who is soon joined by Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay and Richard Chamberlain as Athos, Porthos and Aramis receptively, and before long the four are taking on the likes of Charlton Heston's Cardinal Richelieu, Faye Dunaway's Milady de Winter and Christopher Lee's Count De Rochefort. They assist Jean-Pierre Cassel's King Louis XIII, Geraldine Chaplin's Anne of Austria and Simon Ward's Duke of Buckingham along the way and even stop to steal Raquel Welch's Constance Bonacieux away from her husband, played brilliantly by the great Spike Milligan. The script is awesome, from the Musketeers quips, to the mumblings of the supporting cast. Roy Kinnear pretty much steals the show with his particular mumbles, while playing Planchet, the down on his luck man servant of d'Artagnan. The action is quite full on and impressive and as inventive as it is funny. Each character is written with the respective actor in mind, it works well but in hindsight, having a character live up to an actors real life alcoholism is a bit bad taste (Oliver Reed) but them was the 70s for you. I can't really fault it, there are times when the film looks amateurish for sure but it only adds to the overall charm. Some scenes look straight out of a low-budget Monty Python scene while some look as exuberant as the Palace of Versailles probably did look back in the day. It's pretty much got everything you could want from every kind of genre (apart from horror and nunspoitation). I think my favorite aspect was Raquel Welch's character's bad luck and clumsiness. Slapstick is hard to pull off, even for seasoned comedians but watching Loana from One Million Years B.C. falling about and getting hit over the head by various falling objects is a joy to behold, even now, all these years later. Classic French/British swashbuckling nonsense with a cast to die for.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings
Dir: Travis Knight
2016's Kubo and the Two Strings is an outstanding film debut from director Travis Knight and should act as something of an example for future animators. I'm sure CGI is a dirty set of letters to most stop-motion animators but Knight and his team have embraced every tool available to bring people the best that animation can be, combining classical stop-motion and up to date CGI perfectly. It reminded me of when Lars von Trier added special effects to Breaking the Waves - a move that got him kicked out of his own movement (Dogme 95), the larger audience didn't mind, in fact they were thrilled, just as a 2016 audience was thrilled with how glorious Kubo and the Two Strings looks. The balance is perfect, you can clearly see the characters and most of the set are stop-motion models, CGI is only used to create realistic looking weather, water, smoke and mist and to add slight detail to bring the story to life. It looks absolutely stunning and impressed me no end. Then there's the story itself. I expected a kids film, indeed, it was advertised as one and is still considered one but my goodness, I scared the life out of me. I don't think I'd put my kids in front of it, not until they were over 7 or 8 years old, and even then I expect them to be a little scared. As an adult I found the scary bits to be utterly thrilling though and I love the film makers for that. I think the tone was set fairly early on when we discover Kubo as a small baby and learn that his mother has taken him and fled their home after Kubo's grandfather stole his left eye. Kubo's mother dies and turns into a monkey and they both find his estranged father has become a giant stag beetle, it's easier to follow than that might sound and it's also very amusing but my goodness does it get dark. The introduction to Kubo's aunts is particularly disturbing but again, absolutely thrilling. The voice actors are big names but they work with their characters. The actors include Charlize Theron as Kubo's monkey mother, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes as Kubo's power-hungry, eye-thieving grandfather (aka The Moon King), Rooney Mara as the wicked aunts, George Takei as the voice of minor townsfolk and Matthew 'Alright, alright, alright' McConaughey as Kubo's warrior/beetle father. The style of the picture is mildly Japanese and it's not quite the 'Samurai fantasy' that it was advertised as or what many would expect but it still feels somewhat authentic within the genre. The art itself took inspiration from such Japanese mediums as ink wash painting and origami among others. A particular influence came from the ukiyo-e wood block style, with Laika film productions intending to make the entire film "to look and feel as if it’s a moving woodblock print". Assistance came from 3D printing firm Stratasys who allowed Laika to use their newest technologies in exchange for feedback on them. For the terrifying Skeleton monster the team created a giant 16 foot, 400 pound puppet, which Laika claims is the record holder for largest stop motion puppet. The idea to make such a massive puppet was born out of a fear that individual smaller parts (meant to represent the larger monster) would not work well on screen interacting with the other puppets. The resulting puppet was built in two parts which were then attached together by magnets. For movement Laika had to design a robot to easily manipulate it. The team at one point bought an industrial robot off of eBay but unfortunately (typically) it didn't work. The film won the BAFTA for Best Animated Film and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Visual Effects, becoming the second animated film to be nominated in the latter category following The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993. The brilliant The Nightmare Before Christmas was the first film I thought of once the film was over, it's almost as good as it, and I consider it the best. Everything about it is sublime, I didn't always like the story or where it went but consistently amazed by the visuals and tone, the score by Dario Marianelli is fantastic and I don't think I've ever been so taken aback by a kids film (its not a kids film) as this. Laika films are hit and miss, this is easily their biggest and best so far.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Dir: David Yates
I’m not the biggest Harry Potter fan in the world, so my enthusiasm for spin-off stories is limited. Someone left comment on one of my earlier Harry Potter reviews and asked me if I had had any sort of childhood at all? My answer was yes, of course, it just happened long before the boy wizard was a twinkle in J. K. Rowling’s eye. When Harry Potter first came out I was chasing girls and drinking beer, I had no time for children’s fantasy novels, and I still don’t, even though I have far more time on my hands now that I no longer chase girls and drink far less beer than I used to. However, I didn’t mind the films, in fact I enjoyed the last few or so and David Yates was my favourite director of the franchise. My little sister was really into the books, she liked the films too but was often left disappointed that her favourite parts of the series were left out, although she appreciated why they would be. Like many book series, it is impossible to adapt every bit of content, so it was good to hear that it was J. K. Rowling herself who wrote the screenplay to the hotly anticipated Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is mentioned several times as a school textbook in the Harry Potter book series, so adapting it into its own story and giving the author something of a background is rather neat I think. Rowling wrote a physical version of the book in 2001 to raise money for the British charity Comic Relief. It was written as a textbook, listing eighty-five ‘beasts’ as well as where they come from. It is forwarded by the fictitious author Newt Scamander. Rowling’s screen play is based on how Scamander discovered the beasts and follows his various adventures in capturing and studying them across all four corners of the globe. I suppose it’s an obvious idea in keeping the franchise in the cinema but I think it’s pretty clever, as it still feels like a Harry Potter film but without featuring him or having to fit within the constraints of his story. It’s the perfect sequel/prequel/continuation of the world Rowling has created. The idea could have taken the story anywhere in the world but I love that it starts in 1920’s New York. It’s a great excuse to use a bit of art-nouveau, visually it’s a world away from the old English gothic architecture of Hogwarts but somehow it lends itself into the world of magic rather well. There is a bit of that style in certain Potter films, The Order of the Phoenix being the first that comes to mind and I think I liked that film more than the others because of it. There is a mobster vs wizards feel about it, wands and spats, it’s original and it works. Sure the cynic in me says Rowling is out of ideas but actually I think this is the right step in a different direction. She’s created a world, a successful world and one full of possibilities, why would she abandon it. I don’t think it’s all about the money either, sure there is a lot of tie-in stuff such as the publication of the screenplay but there is also a lot of magic stuff for the true fans. Rowling released four pieces of writing on her online page Pottermore as an introduction to the film, titled History of Magic in North America. It is included Information about scourers in North America, brutal and violent magical mercenaries who played a big role in the historic Salem witch trials of the 1600s, as well as info about various American wand makers, the role magic played in World War One, Native American magic, the foundation of MACUSA, the way No-Maj/Wizarding segregation was enforced brutally after a violent and terrifying breach of the international statute of secrecy and the institution of Rappaports Law, and life in 1920s Wizarding America, with info about Wand Permits and Prohibition. Later in the year, Rowling released a second part to her History of Magic in North America series, entitled "Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry", which details the founding of the pre-eminent American Wizarding academy and allows users to sort themselves into one of the four houses of the school. The school itself is also mentioned in the film. Now I’m not a Potter fan (are they called Pot-heads?) but I am a nerd, so I appreciate this kind of thing. I found the film to be rather universal too, so I may have missed a few references here and there during the film but I never felt ostracized or muggle-like. I thought Eddie Redmayne was good as author and wizard Newt Scamander, although I can think of other actors who I believe would have been more suited to the role if I’m being honest. Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol play sisters, one a witch and the other accomplished in Legilimency (the art of mind-reading) and both play and look the parts perfectly. Colin Farrell is surprisingly good in his ‘is he a good guy/is he a bad guy role as a high-ranking auror and director of magical security for MACUSA. I don’t say ‘surprisingly because I don’t rate him as an actor, I do very much, but I just didn’t see him suiting the role at all. I was thrilled to see one of my all-time favourites Samantha Morton in a strong role and I thought Carmen Ejogo was great (although I would have liked to see more of her) and Ezra Miller was brilliant. My heart sank a little when Johnny Depp was revealed, I can’t think of many magic-themed films he’s been in but it still seems like the genre has had its full share of him. I loved Ron Pearlman’s Goblin gangster character but I’m sure Rowling regrets having Jon Voight in the film after all the horrible things he’s said since the film was made. The film’s big star and scene-stealer though is relative unknown actor (for now) Dan Fogler. A muggle who gets caught up in the world of magic by mistake but leaves a lasting impression on the magic folk he encounters. The special effects are good, although a bit questionable in places and I’m not sure all of the beasts looked quite as good as they could (except for Pickett the Bowtruckle, he is probably my favorite film character of 2016) but on the whole it was visually pleasing. I was pleasantly entertained throughout and I look forward to the next chapter and long may Rowling’s franchise continue.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Dir: Jim Jarmusch

I don't think Jim Jarmusch has made a film yet that I haven't enjoyed being engulfed by or lost in. Paterson started out as a film about the great poet William Carlos Williams, born in Paterson, New Jersey, but grew into more of a tribute to him and the city. William Carlos Williams wrote a book of poetry which he called Paterson, after the city that gave him such inspiration and Jarmusch's lead character is also a poet, called Paterson, living in the same Paterson, New Jersey as his hero, William Carlos Williams. The film is somewhere between Grant Gee's 2012 dream-like essay Patience (After Sebald) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's melancholic and rather thought-provoking 2004 film Uzak in that it is about someone else's work (and in the case of Sebald, also of a place) while celebrating the day-to-day and seeing the beauty in the ordinary, surely the sources of all great poems. The film is poetic but not a poem, although it is narrated somewhat by poems our protagonist Paterson (played by Adam Driver) is writing throughout the film. These poems are not by William Carlos Williams as you'd might expect, although one of his is featured. The poems from the film are written by living poet Ron Padgett and are written on the screen and stretched over time, as though Paterson is still writing them while he goes about his daily routines. Routine is something Jarmusch seems to be drawn to in his more recent films. It's almost as if you can categorize his films in two groups; before Broken Flowers and after Broken Flowers. Everything after Broken Flowers seems to follow a repeated turn of events or some sort of routine, while everything before had a more prominent feel of fluidity about it. That said, similar themes lie in all of Jarmusch's films, most of them are inspired by music, so it is nice to see one that is about something poetry, something new but something that still feels very much like a Jarmusch. Our protagonist Paterson is clearly a big thinker, although we only hear his opinions through his poetry and occasionally when he visits his favourite bar every evening. He drives his bus through the city he loves, refuses to own a phone and listens to the people of Paterson. His passion for poetry is collected in one single note book which his girlfriend Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani) begs him to make copies of. Paterson soon finds himself lost and contemplative, following the destruction of his book by their pet Bull Dog (played by the Palm Dog Award winning Nellie). I felt a connection with Paterson right away. His passion is his, and while he is told of his talent, he doesn't seek a way to share it with anyone or try and get it published, worrying that the integrity of his work would be somehow broken. I totally get that. However, there is no regret in Paterson, other than leaving his note book where his dog could get hold of it, he is content and unphased, able to enjoy the garden for what it is. Laura however is a bit of a whirl-wind of ideas, which she always implements, almost immediately, to seemingly great success. Her open enthusiasm is a contrast to Paterson's persona, she almost seems fickle with her ideas, although she always sees them through. Their relationship works through communication and mutual understanding, it's nice to see that in a film, it is also quite rare. I saw a lot of Jarmusch in both characters, Laura being his old films and Paterson representing his new direction. I thought Masatoshi Nagase's appearance towards the end of the film was quite telling. He stared in Jarmusch's fourth feature, 1989's Mystery Train and he may or may not be the same character. Whether he is or he isn't, he bridges the gap between old Jarmusch and new Jarmusch quite well. Paterson bumping into Method Man in a launderette was also a very old school bit of Jarmusch which was appreciated. It's a very reflective study of creativity, a beautifully subdued film, matured but still 100% Jarmusch. I loved every minute and was swept away almost instantly.
Legends of the Fall
Dir: Edward Zwick
1994's Legends of the Fall is something of a sprawling epic, based on 1979 novel of the same title by Jim Harrison, about the rivalry of three brother, covering several decades. The three brothers, played by Aidan Quinn, Brad Pitt and Henry Thomas, live with their father (played by Anthony Hopkins) at the family farm in the wilderness and plains of Montana in the early 20th century. The three brothers share a bond but are completely different from one another, their competitive nature often getting the best of them. Alfred (Quinn) is the eldest and looks after his brothers as best he can, always following his father's rules and doing the best he can at everything he attempts. His resentment runs deep, as his wayward younger brother Tristan (Pitt), who consistently flees the farm and adopts the traditions of the Native American, is openly regarded as his father's favourite. The younger son Samuel (Thomas) is his mother's favourite and adored by both his older brothers who are fiercely protective of him. The film covers the best part of five decades and sees the brothers abandoned by their mother, fight in World War II, compete for the same woman (Julia Ormond), fight bears (played by Bart the Bear, Hollywood legend) and run for congress. Much of the film is overcooked for that classic 'epic' feel. The film looks great throughout but I'm far too cynical to fall for its dream-like allure, no one ages over the forty odd years and the 'and so time passed..' montages became quite tiresome after the hundredth time. If it weren't for the montages and long, slow panning landscape scenes (and the fact everyone speaks so slowly) the whole film could have been wrapped up in an hour or so. That said, nothing ever feels like filler, far from it, it almost feels like 133 minutes wasn't enough time to tell the story properly. Had Legends of the Fall been adapted these days it would have been a mini-series, although I'm not sure who would watch it. Indeed everyone I know who has a soft spot for the film are all women in their late thirties. My wife regards it as one of her favourite films, I asked her what it was about and she couldn't tell me, she just remembered that it featured Brad Pitt on a horse. There is a lot to like about the film, even if you're not that bothered about sex-symbols and equestrianism but I would argue that there was nothing to really get excited about (unless all you're bothered about are sex-symbols and equestrianism). I can't fault the direction or acting, I just found it all a little too melodramatic and just that little bit hollow.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Long Goodbye
Dir: Robert Altman
Robert Altman's take on Raymond Chandler's classic Philip Marlowe novel is a wonderful neo-noir and about as Altman-esque as it gets. Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe is slightly erratic, at odds with his surroundings and mumbles under his breath rather than boom out confidently. Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett spent a lot of time talking over the plot. Altman wanted Marlowe to be a loser. He even nicknamed Gould's character Rip Van Marlowe, as if he had been asleep for 20 years, had woken up, and was wandering around Los Angeles in the early 1970s but "trying to invoke the morals of a previous era." It is a huge contrast from the original novel, very much a 70's reinvention of the 50s version that keeps the core of the story but changes many aspects of it at the same time. It may not sound like it but there is an authenticity about the story, and the fact that the screenplay was written by Leigh Brackett who co-wrote the screenplay for 1946's The Big Sleep goes some way in underlining this. Producers Jerry Bick and Elliott Kastner bought the cinematic rights to the novel and made a production deal with the United Artists distribution company. They commissioned the screenplay from Leigh Brackett, who had been Kastner's client when he was an agent, she was the obvious choice because of her talent and her work on the original. However, she was reluctant at first, saying: "United Artists had a commitment for a film with Elliott Gould, so either you take Elliott Gould or you don't make the film. Elliott Gould was not exactly my idea of Philip Marlowe, but anyway there we were. Also, as far as the story was concerned, time had gone by—it was twenty-odd years since the novel was written, and the private eye had become a cliché. It had become funny. You had to watch out what you were doing. If you had Humphrey Bogart at the same age that he was when he did The Big Sleep, he wouldn't do it the same way. Also, we were faced with a technical problem of this enormous book, which was the longest one Chandler ever wrote. It's tremendously involuted and convoluted. If you did it the way he wrote it, you would have a five-hour film". She also said later that Brian G. Hutton was originally attached as director and wanted the script structured so that "the heavy had planned the whole thing from the start" but when writing it she found the idea contrived and didn't work. The producers then offered the script to both Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich to direct it. Both refused the offer, but Bogdanovich recommended Robert Altman. There is a story that United Artists president David Picker may have picked Gould to play Marlowe as a ploy to get Altman to direct. At the time, Gould was in professional disfavor because of his rumored troubles on the set of A Glimpse of Tiger, in which he bickered with costar Kim Darby, fought with director Anthony Harvey and acted erratically. Consequently, he had not worked in nearly two years; nevertheless, Altman convinced Bick that Gould suited the role. Elliott Gould had to undergo a medical examination and a psychological examination attesting to his mental stability before he could be cast. Gould's Philip Marlowe is incredibly cool, no more cool than Humphrey Bogart's Marlowe, just cool in a totally different way. Once described as "a study of a moral and decent man cast adrift in a selfish, self-obsessed society where lives can be thrown away without a backward glance and any notions of friendship and loyalty are meaningless", it really is a stark contrast to the original 50's movie. It is fair to say that Leigh Brackett took a few literary liberties with the original story, plot and characters in her adaptation, the story's climactic conclusion being the biggest and most striking. Fans of the original might not think much of the overall style of the film but the ending packs a punch that surely all Raymond Chandler purists cannot resist, indeed it was the ending that finally bagged Altman as director, his only condition being that they didn't change it. Brackett recalled meeting Altman while doing Images. "We conferred about ten o'clock in the morning and yakked all day, and I went back to the hotel and typed all the notes and went back the next day. In a week we had it all worked out. He was a joy to work with. He had a very keen story mind." Altman's adaption satirizes the changes in society between the 50s, when the private-detective genre was popular and the 70s, when crime films were very different in style. There are many intentional contrasts to the two versions, for example, one cliché of the genre invoked in the film is culled from the novel when Marlowe, under police interrogation, asks, "Is this where I'm supposed to say, 'What's all this about?' and he says, 'Shut up! I ask the questions'?", also, Marlowe's chain smoking (Gould had to smoke in ever single scene), contrasted with a health-conscious California, in which no one else in the movie smokes, is another example of his incongruity. The American iconography that Chandler expressed in his novels is maintained in the film though. In addition to the 1948 Lincoln Continental Convertible Cabriolet that Marlowe drives, Gould also wears a tie with American flags on it, just like in the novels. The performances are impeccable. It is one of Gould's finest performances, and Sterling Hayden, Nina Van Pallandt, Jim Bouton and Mark Rydell are all amazing in their complex characters, Bouton wasn't even an actor but a Baseball player! It's incredible to think that so much of it was off the cuff. When it came to the scenes between Philip Marlowe and Roger Wade, Altman had Elliott Gould and Sterling Hayden ad lib most of their dialogue because, according to the director, Hayden was drunk and stoned on marijuana most of the time anyway. Altman had originally wanted Dan Blocker for the role of Wade but he died just before principal photography began. He was reportedly thrilled by Hayden's performance, despite him being second choice to Blocker. You don't have to be particularly eagle-eyed to have spotted a young Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his underpants) in a small role as one of Mark Rydell's henchman. The film was panned by the critics of the time who mainly complained that the film was lazy. Now, I'm 50/50 with the works of Altman but this is probably his best film (along with M*A*S*H) and a huge cult classic. Elliott Gould has said that so long as he is physically able he holds out hopes that he could reprise the role of Phillip Marlowe one day. He has a screenplay entitled "It's Always Now," based on a Raymond Chandler story, "The Curtain." The Chandler estate sold him the rights to the story for just $1. How cool would that be?

Monday, 22 May 2017

Dir: Onur Tukel
I like a dry comedy as much as the next man but Catfight pushed my enjoyment for such humour to the limit somewhat. I loved the concept and the structure of the film. I loved the absurdity and the way the violence was never restrained - even though I'm sure writer/director Onur Tukel would have been advised to tone it down. I'm really not a big fan of Sandra Oh or Anne Heche either but the pair played their parts so well, and so suitably hateful, that it would be fair to say that both were among the best performances of the year, in my humble opinion. Alicia Silverstone is another actor I don't much care for, but she played her part so well and like Oh and Heche, wasn't afraid to portray herself in a negative, rather repulsive light. It feels like three great actresses have just stuck their fingers up to mainstream cinema and have said "You don't cast us, but you're the ones losing out" and I wholeheartedly agree.  However, there is a part of me that feels that only people as repulsively self-centred and snobbish as the characters within the film could actually love it. I can just see the film being discussed at child-like 48th birthday parties and baby-showers without any sense of irony or acknowledgment that they are the ones targeted as negative within the film. Maybe it's just that the performances are that great but there is an element of 'look at how silly we are' and I just don't consider myself part of that demographic. I have entirely different faults. Performances aside, the absurdist structure and unique role-reversal scenario makes Catfight one of those quirky oddities that lay between brilliant and annoying. I think I like the fact that Catfight makes me feel altogether bothered by its structure more than I actually liked or enjoyed the film, again, this makes Catfight pretty unique and something I have to give it credit for. I do like the extra-dry scathing humour, especially when directed at late night comedy-chat shows that seem to be overly preoccupied with politics these days. I thought the political angle was handled particularly well too, in that it (more specifically a war) plays a huge part in the story and in the character's lives and yet is treated as something of a background sub-plot. It initially comes across of a tale of karma but as it progresses it reveals itself as more of an opponent to the idea and rather makes the case for making oneself a target and that the it's the quiet ones (and the simple ones too) who coast their way through things. In many respects it could be seen as an essay on passion, the perils and the pitfalls as well as the positives. Sometimes people misunderstand what makes something a success and what makes a failure, Catfight goes a long way to point out that it is all down to perspective but it also points out that we all are influenced by society and those who say they don't care what people think rarely mean it. Sometimes all you have left is animalistic rage, and sometimes you just can't keep it inside. Catfight is a huge repertoire of ideas, suggestion and sociology. Simple but effective, the whole women fighting thing is one big cynical plot device (and title) to pull the viewer in (because everyone stops and watched a catfight) which makes sense, it's just that I felt some of the joke was on me for watching. It's not often pleasant when a cynic is over cyniced by another cynic but credit due, Catfight is a special kind of something.
Django Kills Silently (AKA Django Kills Softly, Bill il taciturno)
Dir: Massimo Pupillo (credited as Max Hunter)
Django Kills Silently, or Django Kills Softly if you'd prefer, is the 16th Django film to be made and the 15th of the unofficial sequels. There are 40+ Django films and I'd bet good money that more will be made in the future but it is safe to say that Django Kills Silently, or Django Kills Softly if you'd prefer, is about as average as the character's films get. George Eastman's Django however is far from average, he is by far the tallest the cult spaghetti western character has ever been. Eastman's (real name Luigi Montefiori) height led to quite a few problems in his early acting career and I'm not sure it does this version of Django any favours either, as it can be quite distracting at times. With all due respect, no one can match Franco Nero's Django, every other attempt just hasn't worked as well. Give me a George Eastman Italian horror over his Django films any day of the week. Django Kills Silently, or Django Kills Softly if you'd prefer, is pretty forgettable for the best part, with only a couple of standout scenes worth remembering. The climax is nothing new but it is satisfying, it's just a shame that it holds back such greatness until the very end. However, it's pretty fast-paced and snappy, it doesn't drag like some westerns can and it's satisfactorily violent. I think it is probably best to regard it as its own spaghetti western, rather than part of the Django series. Nearly every spaghetti western in the late 60s and early 70s stuck 'Django' in the title hoping to gain more recognition but it never really fooled anyone. Seasoned spaghetti western fans will see a lot of charm in it and would have seen so many terrible films that it will average out somewhat but for most there is little to no interest to be had here. I appreciate the rawness of the film and I think some of the performances are pretty good and I like the natural sounding dialogue but by and large it's forgettable.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Dir: Sidney Lumet
It is astonishing now to think that Sidney Lumet started principle photography on his 1973's classic only twelve months after Serpico's resignation from the Police Force. Based on Peter Maas's biography of NYPD officer Frank Serpico, it tells of his twelve year undercover operation to expose corruption in the New York Police Department at the expense of his career, relationships and almost his life. It's the perfect neo-noir crime drama, a classic 70s masterpiece and one of Sidney Lumet's best. It was a huge success, owing to its faultless direction, the razor sharp script and Al Pacino's captivating performance. It was nominated for pretty much every award going that year. The NYPD were apparently very helpful, Sidney Lumet was assigned two officers to assist him while filming and when they found out that the film would be less glorified and more truthful and gritty, they couldn't be more happy to offer their help and share their experiences. Pacino played it method all the way, which I imagine must have been difficult, given that the film was filmed in reverse, so he could begin the filming with long hair and big beard and slowly cut it short until he was short back and sides and clean shaven. Even though the end of the film states that Serpico was in hiding, somewhere in Switzerland. The truth is that Serpico didn't care much for Swiss life and came back to New York soon after. After accepting the role, Al Pacino invited Serpico to live with him to understand his stance, copy his mannerisms and do the role justice. After the two became friends Serpico wanted to spend more time on set, to act as an adviser and to make sure everything was authentic but producer Martin Bregman had to 'hurt his feelings' as he put it and order him off the set as he believed his presents was too much of a distraction to the cast and crew. Lumet let the actors play their parts naturally and Pacino improvised a fair bit, especially in one particularly explosive scene whereby Serpico is told by his captain that the investigation is going to be aborted. Pacino is utterly convincing, in many films you can't help but only see the actor but not with Pacino, here he is most certainly Frank Serpico. It is impossible to see anyone else in the role, although bizarre as it sounds, Serpico was intended for Paul Newman and Robert Redford, following on from their success with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Redford was to be Serpico and Newman was going to be his lawyer friend David Durk (renamed Bob Blair in the finished film and played by Tony Roberts). As much as I love the two actors, I can't see it, it would have been a totally different film that wouldn't have done the story justice. Pacino knew Serpico, he lived and breathed the role. He later said that when asking Serpico why he did what he did, he answered "Well Al, I don't know. I guess I would have to say it would be...if I didn't, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?". I think I understand that, thanks to Pacino, who certainly knows what it means. Al Pacino has since said that he considers Serpico to be one of his greatest achievements as an actor and I agree one hundred percent, with maybe only his role in The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon coming close or breaking even. A masterpiece and one of the decades very best.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Seven Magnificent Gladiators (I sette magnifici gladiatori)
Dir: Bruno Mattei

After Akira Kurosawa'a classic 1954 Seven Samurai was adapted into several Westerns (The Magnificent Seven (1960) and its sequels) and a sci-fi space adventure (Battle Beyond the Stars 1980), is seems the Gladiator genre (which had something of a revival in the late 70s) was the logical progression in the eyes of the mighty Cannon Films. Never ones to miss a trick (or overspend on a film), I sette magnifici gladiatori (The Seven Magnificent Gladiators) was filmed back to back with Hercules and has an identical cast of actors, with Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk) taking on the Yul Brynner role and Brad Harris his 'Steve McQueen' style partner. Sybil Danning's character is new and can't really be compared to any of the previous 'seven' characters, although this is her second Seven Samurai remake, following her appearance as a Valkyrie warrior called Saint Exmin in Battle Beyond the Stars. She is pretty much there for titillation and because she was also in Hercules. You could say that Cannon were pioneers and finally had a female as one of the seven (which I've heard people say) but that is giving far too much credit it Cannon and anyway, Battle Beyond the Stars did it three years previous, Danning is there because no one else looks like Danning in skimpy Gladiator-style costumes. The core of the story is exactly the same as Seven Samurai but I would suggest that it is closer to The Magnificent Seven in tone and structure. There is nothing in terms of character development and I didn't know who most of the seven were most of the time. The story goes at a snail’s pace, the fighting scenes are overlong and uninteresting and the interaction between characters is almost non-existent and poorly written, as is the script. It's a hard film to get through and the big final battle comes as a huge anti-climax. Warriors come from just out of frame and attack each Gladiator, which is of course ridiculous as they would have seen them, in this sense the audience is treated like idiots. In one scene, one Gladiator congratulates another for the amount of enemies he's killed and once distracted, a solder, who must have been standing next to him the whole time, stabs him to death, while the other Gladiator runs away shouting 'Sorry!'. If the comedy was intentional then I'd give it more credit, but it's not, it's just dreadful. There is no stand out scene and nothing of interest throughout the entire film, how they had spare footage to create The Adventures of Hercules (without the knowledge of the cast) is staggering. I'm a huge fan of Cannon but this isn't one of their 'So bad it's good' films, it's just 'So bad'.