Sunday, 23 February 2014

150W: Her

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Her (Dir. Spike Jonze/2014)

Spike Jonze’s future-romance Her is a strange story. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is divorced and struggling to move on. Within a (not-so) hand-written card company, he writes letters to manufacture intimacy and love. But an Operating System - dubbed OS1 - introduces an unexpected friendship, and romance, with a computer program (Voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Told as a story of acceptance and heartbreak, the intelligence of Jonze is handling the story delicately and sympathetically so Theodore is not judged. We are not critical of the tender “OS” relationship and therefore see it play-out in its entirety. Indeed, abstract artist Cy Twombly is famed for his romantic symbolism and this is what Jonze is exploring. It’s recognisable in the voice-recognition software and the need for socio-personal contact in Facebook. Her won’t shock, but it’ll linger as a lost-love would, as you relate to his search for companionship in this lonely world.

Rating: 8/10

Friday, 21 February 2014

150W: Philomena

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Philomena (Dir. Stephen Frears/2013)

On the surface, Philomena is a story of a Mother finding her long lost child - but it’s so much more. Through an expertly written script by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, adapting the story by Martin Sixsmith, Philomena transcends mediocrity and melodrama. It becomes a story of forgiveness and acceptance that is simply unbelievable, and more poignant as we realise it is true. Family bonds and faith are unwritten ties that bind us together – they cannot be proven or measured. We can be cynics – and Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is. Sixsmith questions and asks the uncomfortable questions while Philomena Lee (Dench) holds our hand as the truth is revealed - and we only wish that our own patience, understanding and strength could be as strong as Philomena’s. In an era whereby God and Catholicism couldn’t be more despised, Philomena is a well-balanced, personal story that magnificently challenges faith and family.

Rating: 10/10

The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Is The Godfather Part II superior to The Godfather? In a lively discussion on sequels, film fanatic Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) in Scream 2, argues how “sequels suck”. But, unlike Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Aliens, The Godfather Part II stumps him. It covers a greater space of time, tells a grander story and turns what was a family-centred, but nevertheless New York “Gangshter” story, into a personal drama set on an epic, ambitious scale.

Though the dialogue in The Godfather holds iconic and memorable lines, definitive scenes in The Godfather Part II show Michael Corleone’s true menace revealing itself. The Godfather portrays his sinister and deeply-calculated methods of management, but they are subtle and carefully-constructed. He recommends the hit on Solozzo and MacCluskey; he marries Kay (Diane Keaton) to maintain a strong family unit; he settles all family business in the climax of the film by killing off the leaders of the New York mobs – Barzini, Cuneo, Stratchi and Tattaglia (and Moe Greene in Vegas). But these murders occur at the very end of the first film. Part II shows how corrupted he has become – and how his lack of morality will stop at nothing to “protect the family business”. Subtlety is not the aim of the game – Michael Corleone wants to make a point. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) asks whether Michael wants to wipe everyone out – in The Godfather Part II it appears so.

Alongside Michael’s ruthless pursuit of the American Dream, it is juxtaposed with his Father, Vito Andolini (changing his name to Vito ‘Corleone’ after his town of birth). Played by Robert DeNiro, we see a considerable difference between the man who began with nothing and Michael. Through a strong sense of family values and respect, Vito built an empire. He was willing to work his way through the system fairly – he works as an assistant; he raises a child; he joins a friend at weekly theatre shows that hark back to the old country. It is through the corruption within little Italy – and the lack of support offered by the authorities that Vito steps in. Fanucci (Gaston Moschin) extorts the local people and abuses their trust. Vito decides to stop this treatement. As a comparison to his son, who aims to control casinos in Vegas and set-up a new gambling hot-spot in Cuba, it is clear that something has been lost in between the generations.

Of course, Michael is not the only Son. Hot-head Sonny lost his life in Part I while Fredo (John Cazale) and adopted-Son Tom Hagen remain loyal to Michael. But family has been eroded – and continues to be eroded in Part II to great effect. The less family-focused conflicts are stumbling blocks. Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese) in Cuba can be overtly political and less-engaging, while Senator Pat Geary’s (G.D. Spradlin) “love” for Italian-American’s is so forced it borders on parody. Even the Frank Pentageli (Michael V. Gazzo) plot bugs like a stone in the shoe as we can only imagine what it would’ve been like had Clemenza returned from Part I.

But these are pedantic points. The Godfather Part II still holds the most striking scenes in the series. The New Year’s Eve party as Pacino viciously grabs the head of the traitor – “I know it was you!” – is one such moment. Another as, what appears to be a small conversation between Kay and Michael, in the final act becomes one of the most explosive arguments he is involved within. Any scene with Fredo breaks your heart as John Cazale truly shows how strong an actor he is – and why Pacino, DeNiro and Meryl Streep often credit him with the strength of their acting. Finally, the entire story set within little Italy is an example of expert filmmaking. You can see that Sergio Leone can’t have looked too far when making Once Upon a Time in America, whereby the context and even lead actor in Robert DeNiro is reused.

The Godfather Part II has influenced many and remains a masterpiece to this day. Whether you believe The Godfather is a superior film or not, one cannot deny the importance of The Godfather Part II – and how it manages to capture such an ambitious story so effortlessly well. Randy Meeks was stumped for a reason – The Godfather Part II is the one sequel that can comfortably take on its predecessor.

Originally written for Flickering Myth and published on 21st February 2014

Thursday, 20 February 2014

150W: September

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

September (Dir. Woody Allen/1987)

“I’m not who I thought I was” notes Steffie (Dianne Wiest) in Woody Allen’s sober and sincere September. Loosely based on Chekhov play Uncle Vanya, Allen contains the drama within a single house. Friends and family are supporting clinically-depressed Lane (Mia Farrow) following a failed suicide attempt but everyone finds it difficult to cope. Lane loves her boyfriend Peter (Sam Waterston), but he has fallen for Steffie, a married woman going through a rough patch. Lane’s Mum, Diane (Elaine Stritch), a retired actress is desperate for Peter to write her biography frustrating Lane further. Suffice to say, no-one is, emotionally, who they think they are. Lacking the laughs, September provides a solemn approach to relationships. Allen takes a step towards seriousness as affairs are not flippant and suicide is real. A tender story, September lacks the pace and immediacy that drives a drama forward making this more miss than hit.

Rating: 5/10

Monday, 17 February 2014

150W: Dallas Buyers Club

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Dallas Buyers Club (Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée/2014)

Rodeo-redneck Ron Woodruf (Matthew McConaughey) is introduced as he witnesses a rider fall from a bull, while he has sex with two women behind the stalls of a cowboy show. He is diagnosed with AIDS, and initially dismisses it. He is homophobic but he learns to accept those he despised as they fight the same enemy. With transgender Rayyon (Jared Leto), Woodruf realises the uphill battle victims of HIV are up against. The FDA only approved one drug to combat HIV and he intends to supply sufferers with the many others available from other countries. Alluding to the smiley-face of a health surface hiding a sinister, capitalist greed, a clown becomes a recurring reminder of western hypocrisy. But Dallas Buyers Club is more informing us rather than challenging us. Performances are outstanding, and deserve the accolades, but the story feels less comfortable as drama and would suit a documentary better. 

Rating: 7/10

Friday, 14 February 2014

150W: Stardust Memories

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Stardust Memories (Dir. Woody Allen/1980)

This is Woody’s 8 ½. Explicitly, from the monochrome first moments as Sandy Bates (Allen) is trapped in a bus filling up with sand, it is clear Fellini is on his mind. Sandy is also a filmmaker challenging the studios to accept his latest art-house offering, opposed to his “early, funny” films that many expect (and often prefer). Crinkly faces at the start recall Bergman while studio-execs conversing in silhouette imitate Citizen Kane. Stardust Memories is open about its influence, blatantly “ripping off” scenes from Allen’s heroes. Of course, there is romance as we puzzle together three lovers: an ex-girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), a potential family with Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) and a young-lover in Daisy (Jessica Harper). It is his honesty that is inviting. We like Woody’s comedies – even Martians do – but he’s desperate to make something that matters. Stardust Memories aspires to be more, but remains a cine-literate celebration.

Rating: 6/10 

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1974)

Al Pacino has been a target for many throughout his career. Serpico begins as full-bearded Frank Serpico (Pacino) is wheeled on a stretcher through bustling corridors, blood over his body, in the same manner as Carlito Brigante in Brian DePalma’s Carlito’s Way. Clearly DePalma owes a debt to Sidney Lumet in this open tribute. It’s an ambiguous start as cop-killin’ ain’t cool on the streets of New York.

But, unlike Brigante’s retiring gangster, Frank Serpico is a cop who’s joined the force with the intention to rid crime from the streets. His morals and idealism lands him in hot water with the New York Police Department as he refuses to join their corrupt, penny-pinching crew. Over time, he builds a ground-breaking court case, dubbed the Knapp Commission. Based on a true story, Serpico is written by Midnight Cowboy’s Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler and based on the biography of the same name, by Peter Maas. Highly critical of the police, Serpico criticises the unethical methods of controlling crime (through well-organised bribery) and the inevitable harassment within the workplace if you choose not to be a part of the underhand deals.

But this is Al Pacino’s film. A clean-shaven cop taking the pledge represents a youthful naivety before Serpico realises the ugly side of policing. His facial-hair dictates his slow spiral into cynicism and distrust before he eventually has a full-grown beard – something we know from the outset is a sign of things to come. Pacino comfortably argues and bellows with friends and politicians; he flirts and playfully jokes with his girlfriends; and his gaze is intense as he fights his corner. Unlike The Panic in Needle Park, Frank Serpico is in complete control of his conduct – and knows what he wants. In one sequence, he scruffily drags a known mobster into a prison-cell. His frustration and anger at the lack of support is why it looks so messy – rather than his own lack of control.

Sidney Lumet, as director, captures him by standing back. There is no voice-over narration or open-discussion about Frank’s feelings. We are observing the brutal truth. The grim streets and alleyways capture the confusion and brashness of the cops. The change in dynamic by turning the end of the story into the beginning is thought-provoking. Policemen state how “six other guys” wanted to shoot Serpico. Is he a villain? By the end, we realise those who are truly at fault. Serpico jumps to action on an attempted-rape call-out at one point, while his colleague scoffs at taking the call. Someone else will get it. But Serpico persists. When we see the vicious, decrepit state of the poor woman and the group surrounding her, expertly shot in low-lighting by Lumet, it only serves to support the change necessary within the organisation – a change Serpico leads.

Not knowing the true story means we can speculate on the outcome. Michael Corleone, served his country but turned to become the leader of “the family”. We wonder whether Serpico will break. Like The Godfather, Pacino is strong and defiant. He will not back down to those his disrespects. But Serpico doesn’t have the muscle of the Corleone. He is a lone man on a mission to change a disease that is hidden and embedded deep in those who serve and protect. A little too long perhaps, Serpico is not a masterpiece. But it does showcase Pacino’s talents as he is in every scene. His likeability is crucial as we see his frustration play out. We side with him and, in that final shot, we know the fight isn’t over.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Lift to the Scaffold (Louis Malle, 1958)

The stuck-in-a-lift plot device grabs your attention. The opening action-sequence of Speed; Emilio Estevez’s short-lived role in Mission: Impossible and the Shyamalan-penned Devil. The claustrophobic, metallic space automatically creates a sense of urgency and tension. The silver-box, hanging by a taught, tight wire seems so fragile and yet it remains the spine of the modern skyscraper – who would walk up so many flights of stairs and remain, effortlessly cool?

Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold exploits this plot-device in all its cool glory. Rather than exclusively set in and around the “lift to the scaffold”, Malle playfully charts the knock on events of the leading man who has found himself stuck mid-floor. Interestingly, the title Ascenseur pour l'échafaud was translated to Elevator to the Gallows in the US, giving a deep sense of dread and danger that isn’t entirely accurate. The film is more playful and smoothly suave than the almost horror-focused US title dictates.

The tall building within Paris captures an industrialist, almost American, atmosphere. Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), like James Bond, is due to commit a murder. His boss, and the husband of his lover is Simon Carala (Jean Wall). He tactfully informs his secretary to not disturb him ensuring an alibi is in place. He creeps to the floor above. He delivers a document, raising the gun. Carala doesn’t believe he will shoot. Tavernier shoots - and sets the scene to look like suicide. Sneaking back into his office, he exits and bids adieu to his secretary. Sitting in his costly car, he looks up. The grappling hook used to climb to Carala’s office remains. Swiftly, he leaves the car running and, back into the office he travels up in the lift until security clocks out and turns the power off. Tavernier is stuck, his girlfriend, Carala’s wife (Jeanne Moreau), awaits him at a nearby café. And two teenagers look at his expensive car with the keys left in the ignition. The car seeks to be stolen.

From the opening credits, you are gently carried into this moody, Miles Davis-scored, night of unplanned events. Murder, illicit affairs, cops and robbers, guns and a riddle you can’t resolve (How will he escape the lift?) pull you into this cinematic sleaze. Sleazy in the way a tall and dark-haired man will seduce a married woman – though illicit, you can’t help but enjoy the sinful seducer’s charm. As Florence Carala searches for Tavernier, we hear her thoughts. Has he killed her husband? Has he left with a different woman? Her narration is the only one we hear and we are drawn into her own fears and sense of panic. The teenagers, Louis and Veronique begin as scooter-thieves and are promoted to car-thieves early on. Akin to Godard’s À bout de soufflé, this crime-plot heightens the tension alongside the murderous beginning that establishes the lift-locked Tavernier.

Lift to the Scaffold moves at a fast pace, and considering the lead character is trapped in an elevator for two thirds of the film, it is surprising how engaging the film is. Florence’s romantic, wistful voice-over lingers in the air long after she has spoken. Due to the jazz-score, the coolness is intoxicating. Exiting the film, the soothing and infectious confidence that oozes out of every pore, will seep into your blood stream. Though Malle doesn’t truly fit amongst the “nouvelle vague”, the tone of the film will resonate and draw you into the genre. You will be clamouring for a copy of Godard or Truffaut; Rohmer or Rivette. Lift to the Scaffold is accessible and memorable and a must-watch for any film “obsessionnel”

Originally written for Flickering Myth and re-released on 7th February 2014

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)

While we read of those trapped in the never-ending cycle of drug-use, it is more tragic and soul-destroying to see the innocent victim pulled into it. In 1971, The Panic in Needle Park captures the story of an artist’s girlfriend Helen (actress Kitty Winn in the central-role), as she falls for heroin-addict and thief Bobby (in Al Pacino’s break-out role), one amongst the dealers and social-ills in New York’s Sherman Square – known as “Needle Park”.

Stark, arresting close-ups of needles pinching the vein and releasing their fluid are common place. The Panic in Needle Park is not a dying exposé on the hippy-culture that was rife in the 1960’s, and could hardly be considered a follow-up to pop-soundtrack drug-fuelled films such as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy two years prior. Instead, more akin to Trainspotting, The Panic in Needle Park is an insight into the loneliness, isolation and dependency that addiction takes hold of. Helen and Bobby need each other, but not as much as they need their next hit.  Cop-character Hotch (Alan Vint) reminds Helen that drug addicts “always rat”, while Bobby aspires for so much more – sincerely claiming he wants to marry Helen while she dreams of living in the country. Trust and loyalty is not an attribute of junkies.

Director Jerry Schatzberg films on location with grimy, yellow stained walls and handheld camera work that we would see two years later in Robert DeNiro’s breakout film, Mean Streets. Indeed, the hyper-active Johnny Boy of Scorsese’s film is an interesting contrast to the quirky, likeable rogue Bobby in Needle Park. Both are self-destructive and both need their respective posse to survive. While Bobby has Helen, Johnny Boy has Harvey Keitel’s repenting sinner to look after him. James Bell writes in Sight and Sound that, considering Schatzberg won the Palme D’Or in 1973 for Scarecrow, he should’ve joined Coppola and Scorsese in the ranks of esteemed filmmakers of the 1970’s. Responsible for the iconic sleeve of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album, his career is surely ear-marked for a revival.

Actress Kitty Winn was celebrated for her performance too. Winn’s Helen carries genuine grace as a victim of her own loyalty to Bobby. Disintegrating before our very eyes, she is the heart of the film. Al Pacino steals every scene he’s in. The wild-eyed junkie, switching between joker and spaced-out heroin-user, he needs to be likeable enough that we believe Helen falls for him. But this has to be counter-balanced with an addictive persona that relies on drugs despite his own claims that he’s chippin’, when he’s clearly dependent. Shortly before the film starts, we realise Helen has had an abortion and her short spell in hospital provides Bobby with the opportunity to charm. He woos her by bragging about prison. These are vulnerable characters.

The bleak depiction of New York is purposefully tragic. The repetitive cycle of drug-taking, unfortunately drains the viewer forcing The Panic in Needle Park to rely on the central performances. Pacino immediately achieves recognition through his unhinged portrait of Bobby, it is only a shame others failed to break the same ground. The Panic in Needle Park is a challenging watch – and not easy to comfortably sit through. Without Kitty Winn and Al Pacino, this would simply be a shock state-of-society film. Instead, we see a blossoming relationship spiral southward. While Kitty reacts and follows Bobby, the thrust relies on Pacino. He transcends the cliché performance of the crazed, dangerous and threatening druggie. We believe in him and know that behind his amiable nature (it’s why Helen loves him) there is a broken man.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth