Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Who Is It? (David Fincher, 1992)

"Don't You Judge Of My Composure'/ Cause I'm Bothered Everyday/ And She Didn't Leave A Letter/ She Just Up And Ran Away"


This is the first of a guaranteed three (but there are seriously so-o-o-o many) music video reviews. As a huge Michael Jackson fan, I felt that this might be the perfect opportunity to 'review' (is it a review?) lesser known music videos created by the King of Pop. So, 'Thriller' and 'Black or White' is not going to be reviewed. John Landis and his 'American Werewolf' movies might be reviewed in the future - but, as everyone knows those videos so well, there is no point in me stating 'Then a zombie appears and, in time, they dance'. Means nothing to me anymore and, I'm sure, it means nothing to you either. To kick start though we have a Pre-Benjamin Button, Pre-Panic Room and Fight Club film directed by David Fincher. Its quite funny how much from this film shows how brilliant a director Fincher is ...


We see NYC, whereby Michael Jackson's character has found out about his lovers relationship with 'Alex'. "Who is it?" he asks - only for it to be revealed that 'Alex' is not a lover of hers - but in fact an alias she goes by when she is working as a high-class call-girl. She has some very shiny cards all with different names on: Alex, Diana, Celeste, Eve, etc.

Michael is - obviously - cut up by this and decides to leave one night while she is out working. he gets on a plane and she tries to run back to him but it is too late. Michael Jackson's assistant throws all the cards back in her face and she realises he knows. But, alas, she returns to her employers - a man and a woman - who promptly slap her and then start making-her-up again for her next client.

Michael is in China (?). Alone.

What I reckon...

This has so many clear links to Fincher's work - specifically 'Panic Room'. The entire beginning of the video recalls Hitchcock's 'Psycho' credits sequence, which was in turn, copied by Fincher in 'Panic Room'. Even the warm colours and false-looking NYC buildings in 'Panic Room's' opening credits could have been taken directly from the opening shots - before the beat kicks in and flips from the warm palette of oranges to the cold colours of black and blue.

The entire atmosphere reeks of Neo-Noir, 'Blade Runner'-esque influence - smokey woman, shadows and shiny surfaces (elevator walls, the cards themselves, mirrors). Then again, there is more to it - to the point that it feels a little like a 'Dairy Milk' advert. The woman with a white hood in this high class society: All because the lady loves ...

I'm going to mention two directors whom I know little of - David Lynch and David Cronenberg. The shiny cars, the shiny walls, the mysterious hooded woman ... am I right? I watched Cronenberg's 'Crash' years ago and - obviously - due to the nature of the film (eroticism and cars) it relied heavily on the metallic sheen of vehicles, so this did seem to recall that but 'Crash' was made three years after so clearly that is just me. Maybe a Cronenberg fan can clarify if this type of 'look' is his influence ... David Lynch though ... I don't know exactly where I got his influence from, especially when currently I have only seen 'Mulholland Drive' (I've got 'Blue Velvet' sitting on a shelf!) ... so completely discard that last paragraph if you know better, if you don't then ... be aware it might be rubbish. Throughout the video, we often see a face emerge from flat, clean surfaces and this is completely surreal so that might be the link - Lynch and his Surrealism.

Nevertheless, Fincher doesn't seem to be making a run-of-the-mill music video. We have the product-nature of the woman, constantly reiterated in the nameless-faces that emerge from the artists drawing paper initially (deigning woman, designing humans, products thus prostitution) and then blank surfaces throughout. One specific special effect is incredibly haunting as we see what Michael feels, as a couple are underneath sheets - but when the sheets blow away there is nothing there (Strangely enough, in the recent trailer for Scorsese's 'Shutter Island' there is a similar effect as Michelle Williams disappears in DiCaprio's arms...) But we, the viewer, get to see the real identity of her clients intermittently - one of which is not only disturbing, but quite amazing to see in a Pop music video. A man sits in the shadows and then reveals himself to be wheelchair bound - cut to this client using an oxygen mask while she dances seductively out-of-focus, soon enough he gets the energy to stand, cut back to Michael. Lonely as hell. This is pretty serious stuff - prostitution, disability, sex and money. A feature ... if only

An interesting side-point is how the video raises concerns about what is the role of a man - and what is the role of the woman. When she realises Michael is gone she is found by her employees - a male character moves close to hear (does he smell her?) and moves off disapprovingly, while the female employer comes up to her and slaps her. It would make more sense for a woman to slap a man but this 'girl' was slapped. Bear in mind this is a woman who has slept with many men. Maybe the role-reversal of a woman with many partners, opposed to a man accepted if he has many partners, is a factor. But, in this case, she is slapped because she wanted to be with one man opposed to the many clients who desire her - and pay for her. Normally your are chastised for having many partners, but her employers chastise her for wanting one partner: Michael Jackson.

The entire video is steeped in expressionistic visual signals - Michael awaits in a dark and cold environment while feeling pain and anguish - but as the video progresses, he moves into the city through to the airport as he faces not only the city lights, but the reality of his life and his relationship and its impracticalities. When we first saw her she was dressed in white as some sort of saviour, but by the end she is in the shadows with dripping make-up in the rain - clearly, this career option began as beauty and class but degenerated into a destructive and ugly lifestyle.

But Fincher did not ignore Michael's trademark socks - and, as he sits upset, he shows a quick shot of the iconic socks. This is a Michael Jackson video of course.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

"Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the c***s, the dogs, the filth, the sh*t. Here is a man who stood up"


Amongst the many directors I admire, Martin Scorsese is up there. Having watched 'Taxi Driver' recently (followed by Scorsese's full music video to Michael Jackson's 'Bad' starring Wesley Snipes and written by Richard 'The Wire' Price.) I decided to follow the viewing with a read of Amy Taubin's study, published in the BFI classics series. I still have to finish the book (its very slim so it shan't be long...) so I may add a little to this review if she raises something in the closing chapter that affects my perspective. I first watched the film years ago and so this was only my second viewing but I think the next step is 'Mean Streets' if I want to get an idea of Scorsese's early days. Nevertheless, one thing Taubin mentioned that I think is interesting is how Herrman - the composer - worked on many Hitchcock films and Scorsese, a Hitchcock fan himself, working with Herrman (becoming the final score Herrman wrote before his death) on a very dark film signaled the start of a new era in Hollywood, a Hollywood that ultimately faded away after Hitchcock, Ford and all the other pre-1970's directors. (Also interesting to note is that 1976 was the year Hitchcock himself released 'Family Plot', whereby the score was composed by the up-and-coming, pre-Star Wars, pre-Indiana Jones, John Williams)

What I reckon... (Summary is pretty much within this chunk...)

This is a film that, in my opinion, gets better the more you watch it. So many layers and issues raised about inner-city life, loneliness, faith, passion, desire - even love. What is most interesting about this is the perspective we view it from, and how this perspective cannot be trusted either. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is a sociopath - he is trusted with peoples lives, but despises these lives he controls. He moves around a city viewing the 'scum' out there on the streets, the 'scum' that he, in effect, is a part of. Not that he knows - he sees himself above all that. He sees himself as some sort of God. Not only does Scorsese show us this part of his life from above (from coffee's and the fantastic long-shot at the end as we pan above the bloodbath Bickle leaves) - as if looking down on everyone and everything, but also Bickle himself, narrating his views and- ultimately - decides to control people's lives himself - telling Iris (Foster) what she should do with her life and then murdering Sport (Kietel) and his brothel buddies at the finale.

Bickle's an insomniac who wanders the streets at night - on foot, in the car - so he feels he might as well 'get paid for it' by being a taxi driver. A profession ideally suited for people who want to people-watch, day in, day out. He goes t the dodgy ends of NYC - an area where most taxi drivers are not so keen to go, but he wants to know about it, he wants to comment on it and bath in the dirty mush of NYC, the muggy foundations of NYC.

Split into three acts - the first act shows Travis attempt to woo Betsy (a campaign worker for Sen. Charles Palantine), after the coffee he seems to be successful and they go to the movies but, unfortunately Travis genre of film was not taken into consideration. Travis likes, and often watches, porn. The angelic 'untouchable' Betsy (Shepherd) has been tainted. To some extent abused and defiled by his conscious decision to take her to a porn movie. The second act is his attempt to change, building his body up and his plans to assassinate Sen. Charles Palantine - but, ultimately fails (this recurring theme of Travis failing at building a relationship with Betsy and failing to assassinate are all small concerns that - bit-by-bit - build up to a crescendo of frustration and anger towards the world from Travis' eyes...) and then, the final act, we are introduced formally to Iris who - akin to Betsy - Travis wants to 'save' from the streets. A destroyed girl he wants to turn into an angel. He needs to save her and he believes that he is some sort of saviour and seems to destroy all the horror surrounding Iris - a bloodbath in the dingy flat, Sport murdered, etc.

Apparently Schrader based the character on him during a bad period in his life (y'think) - that's immense. He was squatting in an ex-girlfriends apartment spending money in porno theatres and had no friends - so alone. But then he read Arthur Bremer's personal diary (Bremer shot George Wallace - a man who aimed at becoming president...) which seemed to have a similar attitude to his own - but, I guess, a lot more twisted and corrupted and - ultimately - mad. Nevertheless, the parallels is what makes this film so personal and relate-able - while also so twisted and sinister also.

While Bernard Herrman's score is very interesting - the depressive two chord and four chord change, the idea of impending doom and the growth of frustration and anger inside Bickle is simply breathtaking - while the saxophone seems to create this beautiful theme that contrasts against the dirty streets and horrible vision of NYC we see.

This film would go great as a double-bill with Fincher's 'Fight Club'. Though 'Fight Club' creates a false persona, 'Taxi Driver' still deals with the dirty, depressive view of a corrupt society that breeds the people that snap into insanity. Which reminds me of 'Falling Down' also. I think De Niro's performance is simply so convincing - you pity him because you know he is in control of the situation. This anti-hero also feels like you might meet him yourself, though it is quite clear that mentally he has problems and is ultimately so self-involved. Never aware of the options available to him - akin to many post-Vietnam soldiers. What do you do after such an event?

Because the whole film cuts so close to the bone, it has the edge of fear and horror. The eyes lingering in the car mirror and the sense throughout the film about what Travis will do - when will he crack? His not-so-subtle racism is also a part of this which is so difficult to watch also. In a world that has become so diverse - whereby, in my opinion, racism has become hidden as opposed to being openly condoned. Travis drives through the streets rarely conversing with people - but we know his thoughts and his attitude to the African-American characters in his head. The real fear and horror is the possible parallels this might have with people in society today - violent, dangerous racist sociopaths who will inevitably crack at some point ...

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Det Sjunde Inseglet/The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

"And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour" (Revelation 8:1)


'The Seventh Seal' pushed Swedish cinema into the forefront of filmmaking in the 1950's - though not his debut, it was nevertheless a springboard for Ingmar Bergman. I have known of this film for many years but have delayed watching it because my initial preference is for Hollywood - but I do try to know my international cinema. Since reading Mark Cousin's 'The Story of Film', I have found that Hollywood often uses techniques and styles straight from World cinema - think John Woo and The Matrix, bringing Kung-Fu into Western Cinema. Think 'Easy Rider' and 'Five easy Pieces' and the French New Wave. Once successful international, Hollywood remake and repackage it claiming it as its own. So, I find it wholly neccessary to research and give credit where credit it due- so, knowing that before Star Wars there was Kurosawa's 'The Hidden Fortress' and before 'A Fistful of Dollars' there was 'Yojimbo'. Bergman has been incredibly influential also - specifically on Woody Allen - who has always been quite honest about Bergmans influence (E.g. at the end of 'Love and Death', there is a dance of death parodying 'The Seveth Seal'). This was on at the Barbican in London during a 'Directorspective', which - I must admit - I shall take advantage of in the future. Indeed the Barbican cinema is really quite a brilliant venue and I thoroughly recommend it. But, without further ado - a review follows the synopsis of - 'The Seventh Seal'...

Quick Summary

"A Knight and his squire are home from the crusades. Black Death is sweeping their country. As they approach home, Death appears to the knight and tells him it is his time. The knight challenges Death to a chess game for his life. The Knight and Death play as the cultural turmoil envelopes the people around them as they try, in different ways, to deal with the upheaval the plague has caused." - brought to you today by John Vogel via IMDB.

What I Reckon

There is one scene in this which reminds me of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch - 'The Garden of Earthly Delights'. In an inn, Jof (Poppe) gets involved in a fight with other people in the pub - ugly, intimidating characters. A 'local pub, for local people' it appears. The beer is spilling all over the floor and pigs run rampant. Jof is asked to dance as a bear and everyone bullies and cheers him on - Jof is terrified, but does manage to escape. Set in the middle-ages (Bosch's triptych was completed in 1503-1504) and the disgusting people and pigs specifically give me the idea of some sort of hell. But I would imagine this is the point. Bergman appears to indicate that Religion itself is just fear and comes about simply through the fear of death. So this complete humiliation for Jof is the hell we have built on earth - we know of fear and we know of humiliation, how that feeds into an eternity of damnation is our own making.

I believe the Death character does not indicate there is a God - let alone a Christian God - as he knows no answers, he merely represents the idea of Death itself and the 'game' we play to put it off. Though Antonius Block (Von Sydow) seems to have a realistic and sensible outlook on faith - I know no proof of God, but I am keen to search for him. Block has returned from the crusades, the death that has no-doubt surrounded him forces him to question his faith, while his squire Jon (Bjornstrand) takes his stand. In his eyes, death sucks but life is life. Make the most of it. Hence his hypocritical attitude when finding Lisa (Inda Gill) - "I won't rape you, but you have to make food for me ... forever.". Thene again, this is the middle-ages, I guess you take what you can get.

Visually, it is stunning. I will no doubt say this about Ridley Scott also, but Bergman seems to frame each and every shot, using the black and white contrast to accentuate the characters features. You could freeze every shot and blow it up and frame it. Even the opening shot of the clouds dispersing is beautiful - like an explosion straight into your face, cut to the crashing waves...

The big one was Gunnar Fischer's cinematography. In black and white, Fischer showed deep shadow and strong light, showing deep contrasts on every shot - Death, with his white face and black cape - seemed to still stand-out when needed, but also blend in when neccessary. With a huge interest in Woody Allen, I have to admit you can see that Bergman's style has influenced his work - though I think Allen feels that 'Cries and Whispers' is a superior film.

Having only watched it this once, this is only my initial impression of the movie. I assume it gets better in time. I knew, going into this that it often appears on Top Ten Movie lists - specifically the BFI and Andrew Collins 'Top 25 Films You Must See', so was more than aware of a positive judgement of the film, but it can often be difficult when you are of a generation brought up on Spielberg, N64's and U2. Opposed to - say with Woody Allen - Bergman, Dostoevsky and 1940's Jazz. One bar I always try and raise for these films is whether I think the director anything else - and was unsuccessful in getting his vision across. For example, I am a big fan of film scores and epic John Williams themes, and - obviously - that was not the case here, but then again did Bergman want a John Williams score (not that he could - 1957 ... he could have got Herrman, if Herrman was interested in low-budget Swedish movies at the peak of his success - "Sorry Hitch, I'm going to bail on 'Vertigo' to join Ingmar in Sweden") - the highly religious-connotations associated with madrigal singers and big brass Nordgren chose, belting out fear, suited Bergman's film better. So my preference is beaten away by an awareness of what Bergman wanted to achieve. He tackled a huge subject - fate, death, life, God, and placed it within the plague-ridden middle England. Most people would assume that this is a rubbish idea - to exapnsive a topic set in an uninteresting context - but alas, the context enhances the themes, pitting the main topics in a world whereby death is on the doorstep. When put so close to death, maybe thats when we turn to God. Whether that means there is a God is a different question.

Many people seem to assume Bergman is afraid of Atheism - I don't think so. I think the film firmly states the problem man-made, man-influenced forms of religious control is bad (which, in my opinion it is) and - in fact - whether there is a God is anyone's guess. The short discussion Antonius has with his wife when he finally arrives home is brief - but could easily be a conversation he has with God when coming to faith. Note how, when Death arrives, he is 'converted' - praying for mercy that we do not see come. But then - are we supposed to?

Monday, 15 June 2009

The West Wing - Series 1 (Created by Aaron Sorkin, 1999 -)

This is a big deal. maybe a bigger deal than most people realise. Literally years ago - before I even started watching 'The Sopranos', my good friend Pete recommended it to me. I had heard of it briefly, but I did not know, necessarily, what to make of it. The idea of 'politics' and 'good drama' is not the most interesting of mixes - but then, I guessed, that was its unique appeal - 'The President - up-close-and-personal'. Woo hoo. So, he gave me the whole first season to watch - but it sat on the shelf. For many months. he eventually took it back, insulted at how I could be so ignorant. By this point I had formed a negative opinion on it - assuming the people who watch it are wannabe-politicians who desperately wanted someone to show them that politics is fun when, deep down, we all know its all a little bit boring. The people who actually think its fun or in anyway enjoyable often study politics or work in politics or are, in fact, politicians. Watching 'The West Wing' won't make you more politically aware because, the fact that you are watching it, probably means you are already politically aware. You don't need Josh Lyman telling you that. But Josh does tell it, interspersed with humour and, after forty minutes, you can turn it off - fully confident that you have spent time learning politics, when you haven't really, you've watched a gossipy and fleeting programme that is pretty much a sitcom - but is arrogant enough to think that, just because its based in the Oval Office, its above it all and not as shallow as a sitcom. Its so funny, there is something that I completely despise about this programme but I just can't put my finger on it. Now as a TV series - before I mock every scene one-by-one (you could do it...), I shall do some sort of summary ... I have one episode to watch conveniently, so there will be a prologue post-watching the last episode of series 1...

Summary of Series 1...

Each episode generally consists of some political issue - responses to conflicts, death penalty, gay rights, established and expected rules within American politics - and going against these rules in the name of freedom. The only continuing political issue that sustains the entire series - kind of - is liberals sitting on the fence to the point that [shock] the President can't sleep at night. eventually he decides he has four years to make a difference and reinvigorates his team and they set to change the world,

But, underneath all the actual important political context there is something more interesting going on ...

1) Sam (Rob Lowe) sleeps accidentally with a high-class call girl - this is an interesting start, until about four episodes in whereby this story is dropped for the opportunity to expand on another relationship Sam is having with his bosses - Leo's (John Spencer) daughter. Quite a player. But then - for no real reason, that story is dropped also - and turns out Sam is still 'hooking' up with the prozzie. Seriously, this prostitute story is suddenly brought up again in the second-to-last episode ... will it be a part of the finale ...

2) CJ (Allison Janney) - the White House Media face - fancies a guy called Danny - a man who works in the media - this is toyed with for a few episodes, until they kiss, banter, kiss a little more and - surprise surprise - their seems to be some sort o conflict between their two jobs. Didn't see that coming. Currently prior to the last episode, post-fall out, we are watching CJ and Danny try to mend their [boo hoo] broken relationship.

3) Leo had a drug and alcohol addiction. He is over it now, but it might look a tad bad for the President but it hasn't come out in a way that it has affected the White House too much so, at the moment he just harps on about it every now and then - "Whats your view of an alcoholic?", "The problem is, I don't want one drink - I wasn't ten"... now I understand alcoholism. Thank you Leo.

4) Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) begins the story as the wonder boy of the White House, who has previously dated Mandy (Played by Moira Kelly, who initially appears to be the catalyst for some crazy events - crazy rock music rather than orchestra - in the White House, but alas - as she is an incredibly annoying character - she simply seems to disappear of radar until some old 'memo' discredits the democrats and she is shoved out from the inner circle...) and then does a lot of self-analysis - he feels bad carrying a card that would save his life in the event of a nuclear attack, he reflects on the nature of his job on a TV show, etc - until a new relationship is possibly begun in the character Joey Lucas, and the banter and flirting continue over at least 4 episodes.

5) Charlie (Dule Hill) is hired very strangely to become the Presidents personal aide and ends up dating his daughter. We are then subjected to many issues involving Charlies African-American roots - Can the Presidents aide be a young black man? Can the Presidents daughter date a black man? Charlie previously worked at an elitist executive club as a waiter and was racially discriminated against - or so it is implied.

6) Toby (Richard Schiff) and President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) are simply perfect people to some extent. Toby is passionate and cynical to a big degree (passionate, cynical ... target audience ... ) and, obviously, delivers all his lines perfectly making very few - if any- mistakes. President Bartlett though brings the whole gang together - mixing all the crews liberal views together in some big melting pot and pulling out a spoon of the perfect solution. But, more importantly, everyone is very happy with his final choice anyway. He's the president after all.

So, the politics are sidelined generally for the sake of, lets see, prostitutes, relationships with bosses daughters, conflicting jobs affecting relationships, drug addiction, alcohol addiction and racism. All these threads are the only ones which continue one-episode-after-another. Only in one instance - something about a conflict in India which lasted two/three episodes - did something other than generic-programme situations come about - albeit an edgy programme that shows after the watershed, but importantly, generic.

What I reckon ...

My view is very clear by this point. I was mocked for stating to a friend that I was 'in awe of myself' - but seriously, I was spot on before I even watched the programme: It dances over the politics, but focuses on the banter and relationships, akin to any generci programme. Highlights from what I said a [facebook] conversation with friends about the programme - obviously I was telling this to friends who liked the programme who even went so far as to say that the opening credits were good... but here are a few of my primary points:

"It is trying to be a cross between a serious political drama (akin to John-Grisham-novel-based-movies or JFK or Frost/Nixon) but, without the budget and the horrendous music, it often appears like a cheap-TV-series or, dare i say it, soap. Now, serious-political-drama crossed with a soap has so much conflict. How can you take a soap seriously ... you can't."

"The music ... completely jars - not to mention the awful title sequence. Add to that the 'funny' 'quirky' attitudes they have ... 'oh, look, the president is high on pills', 'oh, how funny Sam and Toby banter about their credit on his speech', 'oh, how funny CJ and Mandy caress Leo's pearls for his wife' ... i hesitate to use the word, but big cheese is what it is."

"You DO NOT get such cheap shots for comedy in Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Life on Mars ..."

"considering the nature of the programme, this [trashy] sit-commy style and cheesy music undermines the intentions of the programme makers".

"The case on the left [may] need to be told - but [the programme is] so arrogant about it, thus not being 'fair' about its views and invalidating its point. See Michael Moore for someone making the right point about the right issues but fudging up the delivery by twisting words - you don't need to lie about Bush, he is wanker and there is real evidence to prove it."

"Choices over 'proportional responses' and the relevance of an - and I quote Toby - an 'archane constitution', this is relevant even now and interesting even now, it is the [prostitute plots, etc]which are a bit - as I have said - cheesy and sit-commy."

So you can see the main problems - awful cheap tone, arrogance of characters, quirky-comedic-situations and the horrendous music.

To finish on a lighter note - my problem is people taking the programme so seriously- but, if people didn't take it seriously there are many great things going on:
The roaming camera while talking really really fast is actually quite fun, its so fast-paced it can catch you out of breath because clearly the characters aren't going to take a breather, they just keep walking and talking. On the plus side, if you miss something, they almost always clarify.
The characters are so likable, you do want to see what happens. Toby - though cynical and passionate (hmmm) - is played so well. He's like some fuzzy bear with the beard. Strangely enough, as a ridiculous Jurassic Park fan, I was well aware of Richard Schiff's previous work - he was the guy torn in two by the Tyrannosaurus Rex's in 'The Lost World' and also played Elijah Wood's dad in pre-Lord of the Rings, 'Deep Impact'. So, it will be interesting to see his character develop. I reckon he has a little thing for CJ - which - when CJ and Danny are passionately in love I guess - will be revealed. Josh is also very likable - the whole Josh/Joey relationship is so much more interesting than the Sam/Leo's daughter/Prostitute debacle.
Also, for all the liberal-ness of the programme, it is worth noting that currently the staff of the White House, bar Charlie and the fella in charge of the military (big, black and could kick the shit out of you), there are very few black characters - let alone Asian or of any other descent other than white American. Then again, 'Mendoza' is Hispanic. But that's it. Three. though they seem to go on a lot about characters Jewish roots - is the writer Jewish - yes he is. No homosexuals introduced yet - or not openly gay. The majority of female staff - Donna, Ginger, Mrs Lanigham - are secretaries to the men in authority. Then again, maybe that was the way it was in 1999. So that last point could be scrapped.
Specific high points: Ave Maria playing while Josh and CJ talk, Bartlett telling his daughter how she could get kidnapped (though ruined in both cases by the awful music at the end of each scene) and the episode on the death penalty.
Overall, I reckon if people didn't big it up as some important programme I would have been more impressed. But, is it worth a watch? Yeah, I guess so - and I am, to some extent, keen to watch the second series (even before watching the final episode) but I won't because I have so many other programmes that I am invested in and want to finish. No offence intended, but I am keen to watch Series 6 of 24 which has been sitting on my shelf for a long time, and I have yet to watch the last two series of Frasier - all programmes that aren't set in the White House (24 a little actually ... ) but programmes that don't take themselves too seriously and are just a load of fun. Maybe I will miss the banter (opposed to missing the deep discussion on American politics which, for all intents and purposes, is not really deep in any way, shape or form - maybe a brief glimpse of American politics would be a better way to summarise) and therefore will come back to the West Wing and, if I do, you will surely know about it ...

Right, predictions on the first seasons finale ... I saw a gun on the DVD so, clearly someone gets shot. I'll put my bet on the Presidents daughter...
For gods sake. They decided not to choose who is shot/killed until episode one, series two. Who
could it be. They were so aware of how obvious the shooting-finale was, that they preempted the whole thing and showed us the end in the first opening and then flashed back to fill us in. Its the final episode! You have had 21 episodes to fill us in! I still think the daughter may be shot - even killed. She seems expendable. Would also give the floundering President Bartlett even more cause to ... continue what he's doing, but with more passion. Charlie is going to be injured I reckon. Because the target was the daughter and, he was close enough. Maybe Leo. Maybe Josh. Hell I don't know and obviously they want to keep their options open so whoever everyone reckons it isn't they will choose to be 'the one'. Cliffhangers ... another feature of a generic programme. Just to clarify my meaning on the word generic:
generic adj. Relating to or descriptive of an entire group or class; general.
So, 'The West Wing' is a generic TV series. I'd even go so far as to say that the plot lines are the type of plots that appear in soaps. Yes. I said it. 'The West Wing' is akin to a soap opera.
To finish, as I said at the end of this overview prior to the epilogue, I have decided to go back to 24. Yes, its cheap. yes, it appeals to the lowest common denominator - but I'll tell ya, I'm so much more gripped! Its exciting, its fast-paced. There are no stupid relationship troubles. This season we have terrorists who have got the President to cave into their demands. The context of the 24 hours is after 11 weeks of terrorist strikes and attacks on the USA. The value of life is decided by a bullet. I am five episodes into the series and I have held my hand over my mouth, aghast at the shock of some situations. Utterly gripped again. Though, I shall add, from all my banter of - is it Snuffy or something - who does the music for West Wing, Sean Calley is better, but not much. The music sounds very cheap on 24. I'll save the review after watching the sixth series.
Quick note to Al:
Al stated that one frustration of 24 was that it spent 2 minutes at the start of each episode recapping the previous episodes, so that after the 24 episodes of the season, effectively, those 2 minutes would accumulate to - approximately - the same length of an actual episode. fair point ...
The West Wing doesn't spend as long recapping episodes - though it does - but has an additional 1 minute of [the most awful, embarrassing, cheap and rubbish] opening credits. So, its probably the same - if not more - time spent on not just recapping (which can be quite handy if you've been away or something) but also THE SAME SEQUENCE SHOWING PEOPLES NAMES. Do I need to know Rob Lowe is in 'The West Wing' 21 times? 24's credits last 5 seconds. No 'Keifer Sutherland is...'. We know who he is... he is Jack Bauer. Brother of Graham Bauer. Son of Phillip Bauer. Husband to the late Teri Bauer (now THAT was a finale), and Father to the stunning Kim Bauer.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Man with the Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton, 1974)


A fair few months ago a few friends and I were having a grand old conversation about 007 which culminated in selecting from a new briefcase loaded with all twenty pre-Daniel Craig Bond films one to watch. If I recall correctly the possible choices were 'Goldeneye', 'From Russia with Love' and then - finally - 'The Man with the Golden Gun'. Fond memories of Scaramanga and - of course - Nick Nack forced us to choose the latter but, to be brutally honest, when watching it, it was simply not as good as we all remembered. I think we even considered cutting it short. We didn't ... but the thought crossed all our minds...

Quick Synopsis

Right, real quick, James Bond (Roger Moore) is on a mission to find the "Solex Agitator" - "a device that will harness the sun's radiation and give awesome power to whomever possesses it" - but he is not the only one trying to find this. He is up against Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) - The Man with the Golden Gun. He is an assassin who is hired to kill people, which he does regularly, successfully, with his Golden Gun. But it turns out Scaramanga has been hired to kill no one other than James Bond himself. So, Scaramanga is after Bond, Bond is trying to get away. Scaramanga has Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) - his lover - and Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize) - a small but lethal character - on his side, while Bond has the clumsy, but sexy, Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) on his side. Eventually, they get to Scaramanga's remote island and fight it out and - stupid Mary knocks a switch nearly setting the Solex off - so Bond now, not only has to kill Scaramanga, but also has to get off the island before it blows. Luckily he does. And he wins.

What I reckon

Funnily enough, having just mentioned that 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' references Westerns (Indy's outfit) and Gangsters (Toht's outfit), while also dissing Roger Moore's later period as 007, 'The Man with the Golden Gun' uses both genres itself in the opening sequence as we see Scaramanga trying to shoot 'bad-guys' in his mirror maze, whereby Gangsters (amongst them Al Capone) and Western gunslingers turn up for him to shoot - eventually shooting a model of James Bond (shock!) to finish the sequence: cue Lulu.

I absolutely love the song and its always ignored when discussing top Bond themes. Good ol' Bassey and Tom Jones always steal hear squeaky thunder. Well it is a way better song than Garbage's 'The World is no Enough'.

One thing that I think was a choice by Guy Hamilton was to build a surrealist theme in the film. Not only do we have the strange, distorting mirrors and the blurs between reality and creating fantasy (Scaramanga's murderous fantasies of killing off the 'bad guys' in his maze), but also the MI6 base tilted, forced the perspective to be completely skewed.

We also have the Asian theme, whereby Bond visits Kowloon in Hong Kong and Bangkok in Thailand but this - to be honest - just makes me think of Connery and the days of 'You Only Live Twice' and the Japanese themes within that film. Then again, the beauty of the Gulf of Thailand is stunning - so stunning in fact that it was used in 'Tomorrow Never Dies' too.

Even now I reminisce about this film I look back thinking how brilliant it really is - but I now vividly remember the experience. Akin to Trevelyan in 'Goldeneye', Scaramanga is this fantastic contrast to Bond. They are both slick, suave and have impeccable taste but, I think Scaramanga says it himself, the difference is that Bond 'works for Queen and country', while Scaramanga does it for pleasure - and a lot of money. An interesting aspect is why Nick Nack assists Scaramanga - apparently Nick Nack will get Scaramanga's property if he is killed, so the challenges Nick Nack sets up are actually trying to kill him but, clearly, they fail. I'm sure Nick Nack could just sneak into his bedroom and saw his head off or something. And claim it was somebody else obviously.

But I think this is where we have the problem - all the plus points aside - there is one particularly brilliant part whereby Bond and Sheriff JW Pepper are chasing another car across a stretch of land and reaching a broken bridge Bond speeds over it turning a full 360 degrees around. The red car going the entire 360 looks absolutely brilliant but, mid flip, the strangest sound slips onto the soundtrack. The sound is the same you would use for a cartoon character slipping on a banana skin. I reckon this comedic tone to this film is what makes it so problematic - there is simply no need. Bond's one-liners are the comedy, the cheeky attitude he has to women is funny. We don't need dickhead Sheriff Pepper talking like a moron mid-chase.

Luckily, 'The Spy who Loved Me', I recall, as being a lot better but maybe that is the rose-tinted glasses again - Barbara Bach, The underwater base, the Lotus Esprit S1 turbo sports car that turns into a submarine ... good times ... I think ...

Monday, 8 June 2009

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

This was a part of a double-bill session Gudgeon and I had one Sunday. Can't remember the other film, but this one was incredibly strange. Interesting fact: Dario Argento, Bertolucci and Sergio Leone wrote the script for 'Once Upon a Time in the West' - what a partnership that was!

Quick Synopsis

In the rain, Susie Bannon (Jessica Harper) decides to go to a very spooky-looking dance academy in Germany to study. Following many spectacular deaths - including roof-falls and dog-attacks - it turns out it is run by a witches coven and they'll kill anybody who threatens them. Susie successfully kills the witch and escapes, just, because - as they say - those who kill a witch inherits her powers... has Susie?

What I reckon...

This was released the same year as Star Wars, so its funny to think that the same year that the Skywalker battled Stormtroopers, this obscure badly-dubbed (Italian and American actors cast when many Italian actors couldn't speak English, they dubbed them into English) horror film is released also and, subsequently gained some type of cult following.

Now I don't know many B-movie's and so I don't think I can be too harsh about this movie as I have no comparison to really discuss with it. I watched 'The Craft' when I was younger though. Then again, I have watched 'The Cabinet of Caligari' - the 'original' German Expressionist horror movie and the camera angles and expressively-painted sets (Cinematographer was Luciano Tovoli - who was cinematographer on Sandra Bullock-led Hollywood movie 'Murder by Numbers' funnily enough) evoke the same atmosphere - even the story about the sinister figure of authority controlling a person (the 'somnambulist' in Caligari, the dancers in 'Suspiria') are similar themes -so with his in mind, there is some reason to compare. If I were to be so brash - is it inspired by the Hammer horror series? I have not watched a single 'Hammer' horror film so i must be careful, but it feels like they have a similar tone and - obviously with regard to budget - I assume they are both cheaply made. If anyone knows more, message me back about whether I am on the money or simply out of my depth.

Some of the characters too are simply messed-up. The school handyman Pavlo who is ugly as sin - in a school of dancers (as Napoleon would say: 'Lucky') and the blind pianist with his dog. There is even this random young school boy, akin to Damien in 'The Omen', whereby I feel these very quirky additions, simply add to the unease of the dance school. not to mention the ridiculous deaths - especially the dog-attack. I swear this dog attack was awful - this poor blind man trying to calm his restless dog and then boom, it attacks his neck.

I'm going to finish now because this might be one of those movies to come back to - its a very strange film with a very cheap budget but ti truly has its highlights. The main focus being the freedom to create this world that is rooted in traditional horror - at one point we venture into the city as Susie meets a friend and you feel like somethings gone completely wrong! You have been in the dance school with its archaic decor and strange painted walls, but its the setting and it adds to the uneasiness of the film. The dubbing can be frustrating, but once you get over that, you begin to appreciate the ambition of the director - I don't want to hark on about 'Caligari' - but I guess its selling point is this: "A technicolour 'Caligari' with gore Robert Wiene would only dream of in 1920!"

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

I am going to be honest, I have never been a big Indiana Jones fan - maybe if you like James Bond, Indiana Jones just seems to be a bit of a bland copy. Does he work for MI6? No - for a museum. Bo-o-oring. Does he wear a tuxedo? No (except at the start of Temple of Doom if I'm right?). But, saying that, the eighties was a bit of a drought in good James Bond films (damn you Old-Roger Moore and too-serious Timothy Dalton) so something had to fill the gap I guess. I re-watched this to continue my chronological viewing of Spielberg films and, alas, I was not impressed. Lets see how we go ...

Quick Synopsis

We open in the forest in South America, 1936. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) goes through a thoroughly impressive maze of traps and manages to get a gold idol and, narrowly escapes death, getting out of the temple. Waiting outside is Hovito Indians and Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) - he steals the idol and the Indians try to kill Indy. But fail.

Indiana Jones is a lecturer at a University and Army intel explain how the Nazi's - some scary group of German militia - are beginning an archaeological search in Cairo looking for the Ark of the Covenant, aka the chest that carried the 10 commandments. If Nazi's get it they could take over the world because this Ark harnesses a powerful energy. Indy is sent away - picking up Marion (Karen Allen) - a clear parallel to Indy - on the way and eventually ending up in Cairo to meet Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) who helps them get the Ark again - they fail - and Belloq (now hired by the Nazi's) gets it again. Indy gets a plane and fights. Indy attacks a convoy holding the Ark - and gets the Ark. But alas, the Nazi's get the Ark again and both Indy and Marion are captured ending up on a Nazi island. They open the Ark, Marion and Indy close there eyes, everyone bar Indy and Marion die. Fini.

What I reckon ...

So, as I said, its a lot like 007. Well done Lucas with your rip-off script - "Hey Steve, I got an idea - its a rip-off of James Bond and it will make me, ahem, us, money". Anyway, the intro is action-packed and merely introduces characters - with no real link to the story itself. But it is like a brilliant, very complex row of dominoes - you see all these traps set up: boulders, arrows, poison darts, etc and Indy, carefully gets past them and then - on the way out - every trap goes off. Its not just one big explosion or lots of punching - it is complex separate traps going off one by one.

The one thing which is a little strange I thought was some of the comedy had an air of slapstick about it. The fights had huge expressive flips and it simply seemed a little contrived - Bond never had time for fancy moves! not to mention the choice for bad guys. Question: Who are seen as the worst group in history. Answer: Nazi's. Its all a big joke now really! Now, obviously James Bond is hardly deadly serious, but I didn't think it was that tongue in cheek. Maybe I should re-watch some Roger Moore Bond.

Some great references though. The Western regalia of Indy is a nice link to the one genre, while the bad guy Major Toht is the link to a different genre - Gangsters. In fact, there is a huge similarity between Cagney in 'The Public Enemy' in black mack and hat in the rain and Major Toht in black mack and hat in the rain. A great touch. While the final shot of the film has a nice recall of 'Citizen Kane' - the Greatest Film of All Time - with the boxes of storage mounted up in a huge room.

I think this is one of those films which, watched in the wrong way, is not as fulfilling. I watched this in a kind-of 'I have not watched this 'classic' for ages, so I have to be prepared for an important movie', when in fact it was not made to be a classic, it was made to be a lot of fun and not to be taken seriously. So don't take it seriously. It was new for its time and was well aware of the comparison to James Bond and, rather than ignore it, it just ran with it - referencing other films as it went. And now, it is a classic but simply because of the fun and games, the shits and giggles. But, I have to admit, I don't buy it now. I think it won't take long for it to fade away as just one of many blockbusters as there are so many and yes, I know it has had a further three sequels but that's why it has had its longevity and is now a franchise. And they're all fun so I can't knock them but ... I just think they have the same appeal as James Bond except not really as good. I got another three to re-watch and review and then I could summarise but this first one - other than the opening - is not actually that good. How 'privileged' we are for viewing the power of the Ark. Whatever.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg, 1974)


Following my focus on Hitchcock, which hasn't failed - shall we say - simply stalled, I decided to move onto Spielberg. Lets be honest, any film cineaste/cinephile/professional generally needs to know their Spielberg and so I decided to hunt down the (very few) missing Spielberg films and watch them. 'Duel', 'The Sugarland Express' and 'Amistad' were amongst the purchases (always going for the double disc, and always paying as little as possible). Nevertheless, I was looking forward to this one. I'd watch the brilliant [cannot-believe-it-was] made-for-TV 'Duel', and was ready to watch the next one: 'The Sugarland Express' and my oh my, it is quite a film ...

Quick Synopsis

Right, we have Goldie Hawn playing the character Lou-Jean Poplin. This girl is very dominating and controlling - especially of her husband who resides at a pre-release jail. She literally orders him to escape with her and travel to Sugar land to get their child who has been taken into foster care. This is based on a true story though all characters have different names to their real counterparts which begs the question as to how honest the film has been ...

Nevertheless, Lou-Jean and Clovis (William Atherton) - her husband - within minutes of escaping the prison they take hostage Officer Slide (Michael Sacks) and the three begin moving across the 'Sugarland express' - a highway through Texas that ends in the city Sugar Land, Texas. The three of them become buddies t some extent though Police follow them the whole way, not wanting to have their fellow Officer shot. In the process, the media coverage give the couple fame, whereby towns en route begin to root for the 'couple-who-just-want-their-child-back'. At no point do the police have pity on the couple to the point of 'letting them go - obviously - and the film ends with tragedy as - akin to the true story - Clovis is killed, while Lou-Jean is placed in prison and the child given back to the family

What I reckon ...

The first important aspect to the film is how this was Spielberg's first cinematic release - as 'Duel' was made for TV (though given a theatrical release following its - and his - success), this was Spielberg aware of the huge cinema screen audiences would view this on. The film shows a classic Spielberg-shot (no, not the zoom-in in 'Jaws' that Hitchcock used on 'Vertigo'), but the 'Lawrence of Arabia' shot of police cars on the horizon distorting under the heat and slowly coming into focus. These cinematic treats are littered throughout the movie showing how, even at this point, Spielberg was a director to look out for. Spielberg won Best Screenplay at Cannes for this film, but ultimately - commercially - it flopped. Lets be honest - post 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'Easy Rider', this was a bit, well, boring. There are a few parallels too - the celebrity status of the couple also evoke the Bonnie and Clyde story, which the tragic finale, though not a shootout, is i a similar vein (It is a shootout of sorts... just nowhere nears as impressive). Another production factor is John Williams score - I personally love film scores and this one I regularly listen to on a John Williams soundtrack. It has a real softness and yet catchy theme - justified no Indiana Jones - but it fits the story, showing John Williams skills as a composer even as early as this.

One thing which I gathered in this though - that is worth noting because it might be one reason why I have currently stalled watching Spielberg films (come to that later...), but there is no real exploration into the character Goldie Hawn plays - who is played brilliantly. She is sweet - but controlling, she has so many contradictions and at the same time seems wise enough to concoct the grand plan to escape, but fails to actually think-it-through: Did they think they would just take the child and get a house and live happily ever after? These themes don't need to be the story - they simply need to be explored ... this brings me to my final point. Maybe, just maybe, Spielberg just created this for pure entertainment. The simple box-office bucks. Why dwell on these issues when we could just have a good ol' car chase? A concern I shall raise in the future methinks ...

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)


As you are no doubt aware, from reading the 'A Life Less Ordinary' review, that I am a huge Danny Boyle fan and 'Sunshine' I have watched many times. I pretty much love everything about it and, for one, as soon as I get a HD-TV (a way off yet ... god damn overdraft), I feel that 'Sunshine' will be one of the first purchases. It looked stunning on a cinema screen and, no doubt, it will look stunning on HD. One thing I do love about Danny Boyle films is the little touches of spirituality explored and - according to Danny Boyle - the exploration of spirituality in a serious Sci-Fi movie is a must ...


Bear in mind, I am being brief and a little cynical in this synopsis, so I only advise you to watch the film and see how words cannot actually describe the brilliance of this movie so why bother explain it clearly when you should just watch it ...

We wake up on Icarus II a spaceship that has a job to do - shoot a nuclear bomb into the sun sun, thus reigniting it. This has been tried before, on Icarus I, but alas, their mission failed and no-one knows why. The crew are a diverse mix of professionals - amongst them Searle (Cliff Curtis) an on-board psychiatrist of the ship, Mace (Chris Evans), the macho-military engineer and, the lead guy, Capa (Cillian Murphy) a calm physicist who operates the 'payload'. There are many others on the ship: Kaneda, Cassie, Corazon, Trey and Harvey but that is all. The first act establishes all these factors until - oh, my, god - we hear a signal from Icarus I, breaking the equilibrium. It is unlikely that anyone is still alive, but is it worth going to the ship and having two 'payloads'? Doubling the chances of survival of the earth? Capa is given the choice and he decides 'yes' so off they go to Icarus I. They get to the ship with minor problems (well ... maybe not minor ... but ... ) and, once on board, they see that someone went mad and killed everyone. The ships captain Pinbacker (Mark Strong) who left a Kurtz-like message about God and failing missions. But he's dead so don't worry about it (well, he is burned from head-to-toe anyway). Then 'someone' separates the two ships from each other and a few lives are lost when they cross back to the original Icarus II. To finish Pinbacker turns out to be alive and well and sets off trying to kill everyone on board Icarus II and, after a lot of sharp razor-blade fighting, Capa manages to shoot his load (ho ho ho!) and Earth is saved.

What I reckon...

I make small cards every time I watch films and, for some silly - possibly pretentious reason - my first two 'lines' on this film were: "Ashes to ashes" - Sun, that is full of fire, "dust to dust" - Death and human skin. I don't know exactly what that means or where it came from. It just is what is, and I thought I'd share it with you.

One thing which is clear, is the appreciation of the beauty of nature, and how this links to a possible spiritual awareness. The Buddha-like pose of Corazon as she holds a part of nature is one such example, while the music itself from John Murphy and Underworld (Why, for godssaake, is the soundtrack only available for download!!!) is almost transcendent. But maybe, the almost-obsession with beauty makes people feel closer to God? The spiritual focus is primarily on Fundamentalism rather than glorification: Searle begging Kaneda 'What do you see?' as Kaneda, close to death, looks into the the light is the curiosity of God, opposed to the reality of His existence, while Capa - caught between the science and nature during the finale shows the awe of His creation. It all feels a little preachy, but I think this is part of the focus. Pinbacker on the other hand is Bin-Laden. He is the distorted - both physically by burns and visually by Boyle - version of a human, twisted and corrupted. Pinbacker himself breaks a certain element of realism that was established before his arrival, clarifying his strange existence - as I am sure we can all agree that the Taliban would be better off just not being here. One interesting point Danny Boyle raises in the commentary track for the film is that Searle is the complete opposite of Pinbacker in terms of faith - where Searle is willing to die for his faith, and indeed he does, Pinbacker will sacrifice everyone else for his faith. Pinbacker emerges from light when Capa first sees him and creates darkness in the ship with his distorted view - and that final act of the film with Pinbacker shifts the entire film into this fast paced, horror movie a credit to regular-Danny Boyle collaborator editor Chris Gill.

One thing that I found fascinating was the use of colour and the choice of colours to show the bleakness of inside the ship, while outside has so much colour and beauty you cannot help, akin to Searle, but be in complete awe of the sun and all its majesty - so a clap to cinematographer Alwin Kuchler for this! The overall tone of the film is influenced by 'Alien', '2001:A Space Odyssey' and Tarkovsky's 'Solaris' ('Solaris' being the only one I haven't seen...) and this is what makes it look so good - if you use such magnificent films to influence your work, then you can't go too far wrong. Might not be unique, but its how art progresses - art and influence.

Personally, films with a spiritual or destiny theme always intrigue me and I think this is why I lover this film so much! Why are we here? How can free-will and pre-destined fate exist together? How valuable is human life? These are big questions and Alex Garland regularly raises these topics.

One interesting note Danny Boyle made on the commentary: "Three Sci-Fi elements when you do serious science-fiction film: Ship, crew and signal (that changes everything)"

The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931)


This is one of those often-quoted classic films in cinema. First off, in 1930 a Production Code was established to stop the growing amount of violence depicted in movies - filmmakers would get around this by placing prologue cards and epilogue cards specifying how a criminal life is not condoned by the filmmakers. 1931 - 'The Public Enemy' is released. 1934 and public outrage against the many violations of the code - namely 'Scarface' - came to a head. The Catholic Legion of Decency began a protest against violent films by picketing outside cinemas and putting lists of films together than they condemned - amongst them 'Little Caesar' and 'The Public Enemy'. I have yet to see ‘Little Caesar’ but it is being shown during a Gangsters month at the BFI in July, so I shall hopefully have tickets then – watching it ‘how it was meant to be seen’. Nevertheless, The Public Enemy' was made between these two points so now, you can watch it, without any edits or changes that back in, say, 1940, would be inevitable due to those bloody Catholics. These edits to films came due to a huge public outrage following these protests, whereby producers decided that a 'certificate' would be produced for each film released, judged by the Hays office, and this would hopefully give the audience an indication of the type of film a group would be watching. 'The Public Enemy' itself had a huge influence on filmmakers - specifically Martin Scorsese, who often says in interviews how he attended double-bills that showed ‘The Public Enemy’ and ‘Scarface’ when he was a child and it was part of many factors that made him the one of the greatest directors of all time, and in the first few minutes you can see the influence this has had on him.

Quick Synopsis and What I reckon ...
We start off in 1909, whereby a young Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) are stealing little things, pulling pranks on Matt’s sister and generally winding people up- so when you think about ‘Goodfellas’ with the chronological order of the story shown (Henry, Tommy and Jimmy Conway as young hoods) you can see the influence of ‘The Public Enemy’ on ‘Goodfellas’. Nevertheless, the ‘rise-and-fall’ aspect of ‘The Public Enemy’ is also a popular type of story that is clearly shown in both ‘The Public Enemy’ and ‘Goodfellas'. Anyway, enough of that – I’ll save the review of ‘Goodfellas’ for another time. At this point (the film begins in 1909) we are also introduced to Putty-Nose, a non-important hood who gives Tom and Matt their first real job, whereby not only does it go wrong (a fake Bear scares Tom… bloody Bears … ) , but ‘Limpy Larry’ is killed and Tom or Matt – probably Tom – kill a policeman. Tom and Matt swear revenge on Putty-Nose…

Its interesting to note that James Cagney and Edward Woods were originally up for the opposite roles – Cagney as Matt and Woods as Tom, but when Cagney was clearly better. This is really strange because when you watch the first sequence with the child actors playing the roles, it is clear that the young actor playing Matt is based around the look of Cagney, while the young version of Tom is based on Woods. Even the clothes are practically the same. Talk about a continuity error!

Like most of these early Gangster films – say ‘The Roaring Twenties’ – we obviously see the effect Prohibition had to the criminal underworld, and this provides the foundations for Tom and Matt’s breakout job, whereby they steal a load of alcohol in gasoline trucks. I ask this - if this is a used gasoline truck, how did they clean the inside of it fast enough and clean enough so that the alcohol wouldn’t be polluted because, I guess, if you drink gasoline, you die. Maybe it was a new truck. I know this is pedantic. I’ll stop.

I could spend so long looking at each narrative function, but alas, it would take too long. Maybe ‘The Public Enemy Review: Part II’ would be better. You have a brilliant character called Nails Nathan – a man who looks so sinister, his smile will keep you up at night. When he clarifies to a brewery owner how Tom and Matt are hired to make sure that no-one buys beer from anyone else, he snaps out of a very posh persona into a dog-like barking murderer. A businessman first and foremost – but he does remind me of Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) in 'The Untouchables'.

Two brilliant sequences to finish on (nothing to do with grapefruit and nothing to do with the finale itself which are most often recalled). Mike (Tom’s goody goody brother) returns from fighting in the war, while Tom has been making money off of the prohibition. During a family dinner we see Mike stewing over Tom’s criminal lifestyle. Here is Mike, tired and – probably tortured by the memories – with barely any money at all, while Tom has a new car, new suit and has provided, in the middle of the table (completely in everyone’s way may I add… oh, I get it, that’s the point) is a beer keg. As we waited for Michael Corleone to react to Kay’s abortion we wait for Mike to blow - which he does, telling Tom how ‘it’s not just beer in that keg … its beer and blood’ (The name of the book the film is based upon: "Beer and Blood"), shouting down Tom and Matt – the murderers and criminals that they are. Tom, referring to the war Mike has recently come back from, says Mike enjoys killing – “You didn’t get that medal for holding hands with them Germans”. He su-u-ure didn’t.

The second sequence is probably most influential one, specifically on the notion of film-noir whereby during an absolute downpour of rain, Tom decides to respond to the death of Matt by killing the rival gang. Dressed in a black mack, with the rain pouring down off his hat and jacket he walks in, we hear the shootout without seeing anything, and he returns out stumbling and trying to stand, he falls to his knees and eyes looking up he says “I ain’t so tough” and he collapses. This isn’t the end, and there is a treat in store – and everyone should try and catch this film to see that finale.

There is so much stuff going on in this film – family, US history, criminal morals, the law, etc – that it is still relevant and fascinating today. More importantly, like many of the classic films of this time, this film would not stand well remade as no-one could match James Cagney’s performance as the twisted, slightly crazy (though nothing in comparison to ‘White Heat’s’ Cody Jarrett) Tom Powers. This is a necessary watch for anyone who wants to know their Gangster genre … in fact, it would be the first, in a long line of films, to watch and understand the genre.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Celebrity (Woody Allen, 1998)

‘Celebrity’, made in 1998, shows Woody Allen again attempting to tell us about old age and mid-life and, the problems with it. But this time Woody Allen is in the guise of Kenneth Branagh, playing Lee. Lee has been married 16 years and has decided to divorce his wife Robin (Judy Davis), a woman who was completely oblivious/unaware of Lee’s feelings – feeling’s rooted in lust. Another preoccupation of Woody Allen. We see the two try and restore some type of normality to their lives – akin to the initial happiness they had with each other I presume, except better. Obviously, someone is the dumped (Robin, upset, in some sort of religious retreat home …) and the other is the dumpee (Lee, happy as Larry successfully sleeping with many women). Bear in mind, Lee is a writer/reviewer for a celebrity publication with aspirations of becoming a screenwriter. It’s Kenneth Branagh doing a Woody Allen impersonation – is this the type of person a successful Hollywood A-list actress gives a blowjob too for no other reason except because she can? Or maybe this awkward I-don’t-think-this-is-very-realistic attitude should be turned into humour. Woody Allen often does this I find – Rebecca Hall in ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’ convinced she will never cheat on her fiancé and then, because of a Spanish guitar she goes against this completely … again, not incredibly realistic, but you have to accept it. Mark Kermode and everyone else, seems to agree that a lot of Woody Allen films seem, to some extent, to be about him. You paint the picture … 1998, Woody has been in a relationship with Soon-Yi Previn for many years. He is 35 years her senior. If I am right, they actually got married in 1997. Then he makes a film about a guy, going through a mid-life crisis and who splits up from his wife for a younger model, and then splits up with a long term partner, for a younger model and he ends up, incredibly unhappy. As I felt with Manhattan, this film would be so much easier to take if Woody Allens own personal life did not have so many correlations.

Talking about ‘Manhattan’, ‘Celebrity’ is shot in black and white also, giving it a certain, classical edge. I guess this is against shooting it as colourful and flashy akin to a McDonalds Happy Meal … which, would probably be more appropriate. Does he deem celebrity culture to be a good thing? Eric Lax in ‘Conversations with Woody Allen’ gives the impression that Woody hates the celebrity culture, only going on the press junkets if he has to as part of a contract – but if he can shy away from them, he would. I cannot help but feel that Allen likes to create this beautiful look to a film – he knows how to do it well (so, a safe bet) and he has the supporting staff to make it happen. Namely Sven Nykvist – the cinematographer of many Woody Allen films, and more importantly, of Ingmar Bergman’s films. This is not ‘Cries and Whispers’. This is not ‘The Seventh Seal’. This is a Woody Allen [comedy] movie about a mid-life crisis. The balance is incorrect and doesn’t suit the tone of the script itself. To add to this, you have the – I don’t want to say it, but I will – pretentious music. I love the music, but again, it is hardly representative of the world he is trying to portray. Maybe this is another [unnecessary] classical edge to the film.

The cast on the other hand is second-to-none. I’ve harped on about Branagh enough, Judy Davis is brilliant – combining an element of distrust and lack-of-confidence just right to play off Joe Mantegna’s ‘Tony’, who is basically the perfect man: Italian, funny, unmarried, rich, intelligent, loving family – the lot. The tension is whether poor Robin will keep this guy, who she knows all too well, she doesn’t want to lose. Then there are the small cameos, but incredibly important, parts*. Specifically Leonardo DiCaprio in his first performance post-Titanic.

You have to wait a little for my ‘Titanic-is-a-fu*king-good-movie’ review, but nevertheless, he is flawless. While happy in a relationship, Lee attempts to sell his screenplay to successful film star Brandon Darrow (DiCaprio) while Darrow is having the time of his life at the peak of his success. He beats his girlfriend, he gets arrested, he travels to Atlantic City, he gambles, he takes drugs and he has orgies … and this is within the space of about 10 minutes and, most importantly, at no point do you feel that anything is false, he simply plays the role to a T. It is perfect. It is aspects like this that makes the film so good and, although it is unnecessary, it does look stunning and maybe, just maybe, I have got to stop assuming what should be done and accept what has been done. It looks good, it sounds good, they act well and the script is good … its just not great and, I’m sure, it could be.

*It is also interesting to mention, on a side note, that you get a little flavour of the TV stars just about to break out in the successful TV programmes of the future. Stars from The Sopranos (Paulie Walnuts and Janice Soprano), The West Wing (CJ), The Wire (Avon Barksdale) and even Hank Azaria makes an appearance (aka half the cast of The Simpsons)