Tuesday, 25 March 2014


On April 18th, Spider-Man will be web-slinging his way through New York City again. The Amazing Spider-Man was a reboot of the popular comic-book hero and, now they have placed the foundations of our awkward teenager into place, they can build upon the story. Repeating the beats on Raimi’s Spider-Man, the 2011 blockbuster showed us again how the arachnid bit the boy; the Uncle killed and a love-interest was turned down after a whirlwind romance. Thank God, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can now go in whatever direction it wants, and indeed, after watching the first film I’m glad we are finally here.

Witnessing a thirty-minute show-reel screening, I can honestly say that I am excited about the next instalment. Marc Webb introduced the video by telling us how The Amazing Spider-Man 2 portrays Spider-Man at the “top of his game” while Peter Parker is trying to be a “regular kid”. The missing back-story of Peter Parker’s father, alluded to in the previous film, is expanded upon in the opening moments of the upcoming film with a rough and messy hand-to-hand fight set within a jet recalling the type of directing Paul Greengrass has shown us in The Bourne Supremacy. This flashback soon cuts to Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) saving the Big Apple as Rhino (Paul Giametti) ploughs through downtown, smashing cop cars and yellow cabs to the side of the road. Andrew Garfield is cheeky and cheerful, while retaining a certain amount of smug arrogance that immediately gains our attention. We like him, and for me, we like him more than Tobey Maguire’s slightly-too-awkward portrayal in the 2000-2008 series.

Lead-villain Electro is played by Jamie Foxx and, though showcasing some incredible special effects and strong, effective use of 3D, his one-liners (“It’s my birthday – it’s time to light my candles!” BOOM!) and blue make-up seems to recall our favourite Batman villain - Mr Freeze (from the critically-panned Batman and Robin). But this is Spider-Man! He’s our favourite guy! He is fun and games; a geek we can relate to; an optimistic lad who can’t quite believe how crazy-cool his supernatural powers are! The Avengers are building a universe that is epic in scale – reaching from earth to Asgard. Man of Steel seems to be so serious while X-Men: Days of Future Past is so political. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 looks like it will be fun – and pronounce f-u-u-u-un, with a huge grin on your face. Over the top villains, snarky heroes and gorgeous romantic interests (with perfectly-balanced chemistry between Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield) is what we want to see. While he may be limited to the Manhattan skyline, that’s not a bad thing. It means it looks like the comic book we know and feels like the gloss and shine of New York blockbusters. This doesn’t look like throw-away fun but maybe the fun you’ll revisit time and time again. April 18th will answer out questions…

This post was originally written for TQS on March 25th 2014

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999)

Working together on Heat (only four years prior to The Insider) meant that Al Pacino and Michael Mann clearly had chemistry worth exploring. Replacing the action-sequences with political intrigue and tense paranoia meant this could hardly be billed as a follow-up. The Insider tackles the big business of tobacco and the ongoing contradiction of American capitalism – whereby the almighty dollar trumps justice. Except in this case, investigative journalism alongside the justice system mounted a campaign that resulted in a $368 billion settlement between the four largest tobacco companies in America. Suffice to say, Brown and Williamson – the ‘villainous’ company at the centre of The Insider – merged with Reynolds American in 2004 and is still the second-largest tobacco company in the states.

Written by Eric Roth and Michael Mann, The Insider dramatizes the events leading to the aforementioned campaign. Whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) revealed on CBS expose 60 Minutes that, in a court of law, Brown and Williamson lied and covered up their increase in addictive supplements to their cigarettes. This could be merely the small man tackling the big corporation with the support of a kindly lawyer – a la Erin Brokovich. Instead, the core of the story is in the hands of 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). Through Bergman, we see the conflicted ethics of those who work in journalism – a far call from the phone-tapping and criminal activities of those involved in the Leveson inquiry. Bergman convinces Wigand to tell his story – and to tell the whole truth for the sake of us; the public. Roger Ebert, rating the film 3.5 out of 4, rightfully compares the film to All The President’s Men, but crucially notes the very personal nature of this story: “The Insider had a greater impact on me than All the President's Men, because you know what? Watergate didn't kill my parents. Cigarettes did.”

It is easy to forget how connected an enormous corporation, sitting atop a towering skyscraper connects to the working man – but increasing the addictive supplements in cigarettes is a pretty clear link. Michael Mann tackles the story in long-form, running to nearly three hours. Introducing Bergman as he attempts to snag an interview with a known terrorist in the opening sequence, on one level jars with the context and tone of the film, but also highlights how enemies – as dangerous and sinister as religious extremists are also within the western world. Indeed, Crowe as the fidgety, possibly-unhinged Jeffrey Wigand plays with our own assumptions as we question more than merely the corporation. Pacino plays Lowell Bergman as the conflicted man a journalist must become – while his own stand against CBS’s decision to screen a cut version of the interview places him on a forced vacation, when he contacts Wigand – holed up inside a hotel after his family has left him – we see the contrast between the beach house Bergman is in and near suicidal Wigand. Bergman may have played an important role in illuminating the issue, but we need more Wigand’s.

The Insider does explore avenues of character that prolong the events. Wigand’s failed marriage is clearly set-up and broken down, while Bergman’s relationship with host Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) is constantly a source for comparison. The prestige and legacy Wallace wants to leave behind is set against the purpose – and cost - of the job itself. Indeed, Bergman is fighting for what he believes. These sub-plots, though something Mann often explores, detract from the core of the story and can stagger the story. But what a story it is. Often the media and court system can be perceived as merely a villain and frustration to the greater cause, so it is refreshing to see how they can support the just and the good. And Al Pacino is remarkable.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on March 20th 2014

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Looking for Richard (Al Pacino, 1996)

The Al Pacino season at the BFI has showcased his best work, but it can be difficult to get a sense of what Pacino is like when viewed through the fictional lens of characters like Michael Corleone and Frank Serpico. Looking for Richard is Pacino’s directorial debut, digging deeper into American attitudes towards Shakespeare – specifically the influential historical drama Richard III. This is an insight into Pacino’s acting and his love for the stage. Informative, insightful and playful, Looking for Richard is a theatrical treat for film fans.

Led primarily by Pacino himself and his co-writer Frederic Kimball, they banter and argue about the text and purpose of the documentary. While Pacino is building and amassing footage to create a film to educate and illuminate a centuries old text, Fred is keen to prove how actors understand Shakespeare, while directors and academics don’t hold a candle to the perspective of the actor - who lives and breathes the roles.

Looking for Richard also showcases some of the finest American acting talent. Signing up Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin after working on Glengarry Glen Ross, we see their portrayals of their respective roles effortlessly played. Baldwin particularly clearly has a finesse and style that perfectly suits the betrayed brother of the king (How else can I see Baldwin play Shakespeare?). Winona Ryder appears briefly as the widow, and future wife, of King Richard. Her grace and conflicted young woman is challenged and manipulated so well, it only highlights how strong an actress Ryder can be. It also breaks my heart to see Pacino and Ryder acting alongside each other. Francis Ford Coppola cast Winona Ryder as Michael Corleone’s daughter in The Godfather Part III, but she was taken ill shortly before production and replaced by Sofia Coppola.  Suffice to say, if she can convincingly act Shakespeare, Mary Corleone would be a walk in the park – and what a film it would’ve been.

Pacino cuts between the actors discussing the roles and their motivations to actors and academics who have built their careers on Shakespeare. Vanessa Redgrave tells us of the Iambic Pentameter providing a direct connection to the soul; John Gielgud reveals his belief that Americans are simply not cultured enough to truly understand Shakespeare while James Earl Jones equates Shakespeare with the word of God.

It’s hard to argue with Pacino. The relevance of Shakespeare, and crucially Richard III, is all around us. From the debt House of Cards owes to Richard III, to the politics at play in Game of Thrones, the influence is all around us. In fact, considering the story so far in House of Cards, watching the third act of Richard III may give the plot away for the third season of House of Cards next year.

Though difficult to break down, iconic and unforgettable lines hark back to this specific text. “Now is the winter of our discontent” through to “… a horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse”. Looking for Richard deconstructs and reveals the poetry, though an acquired taste, of the language. While shooting some of his most memorable roles (his beard from Carlito’s Way, the use of crew in the final act - borrowed from Michael Mann’s Heat), this is Al Pacino discussing his love for Shakespeare, the stage and acting itself. But now I recall others. Where is ‘Looking for Hamlet’ starring Jude Law or David Tennant? Or Ian McKellan enlightening us with the words of King Lear? This is a fascinating documentary and, if you’ve ever been switched off by the Bard, this is your entrance into his work.

This was originally written for Flickering Myth on 17th March 2014

Monday, 10 March 2014

Rome, Open City (Roberto Rosselini, 1945)

 "Life is mean and dirty” says Marina, a conflicted woman who has turned to prostitution to fund her way of life in Post-War Italy. In Rome, Open City, though Nazi’s embody the enemy and our rebel protagonist Manfredi is fighting a just cause, it is worth noting that the time period is when Rome is under Nazi occupation. This is men, women and children rebelling against the government – the sentiment “one man’s terrorist, is another man’s freedom fighter” is fitting. The script was written merely two months after the end of World War II, with production beginning in 1945. The state of Rome is what the Nazi’s left behind, and the cast and crew featured experienced, many first-hand, the reality of Nazi dictatorship.

Freedom-fighter Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) is sought after by the German SS troops. He hides in a shared house alongside Pina (Anna Magnani) and Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), a couple due to be married. This group of resistance fighters includes Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi) and Pina’s son. Every character has a story to tell. A child joins his friends to bomb. Pina loots a bakery to feed a family. Indeed, Manfredi has his own history and is a legend to his peers. The humble and quiet Don Pietro uses his role as a priest to support the cause also. In one sequence, a house is raided and Don Pietro knocks a man out with a saucepan to convince the guards he is praying for a sick man. The sequence is comic and it is no surprise that Aldo Fabrizi was a famed comedian himself before cast in this role by writer Federico Fellini.

The final act becomes a stark reminder as to the true horror of war. A key character, Manfredi’s girlfriend Marina (Maria Michi), double-crosses her lover. We become acutely aware of the hardships of the city. A small fortune could be earned by giving away locations and the whereabouts of known felons. Life and death are played close to each other as, in a crowded city street, a woman is shot down without a thought. While in one scene there is a playful joke (as a football hits the Priest in the head), the next is tragic and made more than poignant as the story is based on accounts of those who were in Rome at the time.

Rome, Open City is a historical document. In its immediacy, it surpasses the many accounts of World War II we are told are definitive. The glorification of US troops in Saving Private Ryan and poetic rendering of The Pianist are all cited as extraordinary examples of filmmaking – but they don’t have the brutal reality and truth that breaks through in Rome, Open City. Martin Scorsese tells us how it is the “most precious moment of film history”. Indeed, director Rosselini introduced the world to Italian neo-realism with Rome, Open City, preceding Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. And today, it still captures the moment. We know that the resistance against Nazi rule was not only on the battlefields, but on the streets of occupied territory too. Thank Roberto Rosselini for making that known – and for the ripple effect it had in Italy, and then across the world.

This was orginally published for Flickering Myth on 6th March 2014

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

150W: Interiors

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

Interiors (Dir. Woody Allen/1978)

Woody Allen’s first foray into drama is a delicate musing on family, divorce and depression. Daughters Joey (Hurt), Renata (Keaton) and Flyn (Griffith) are coping with the divorce of their parents, Arthur (E.G. Marshall) and Eve (Geraldine Page). Interior-designer Eve desperately hopes Arthur will return to her – but we, and the daughters, suspect this won’t happen. Wild-child Flyn is a TV actress and her sister’s boyfriend obsesses over her. Joey’s high-strung and intense attitude cloaks her fears. Renata, though honest with her mother, ignores her Mother’s aching sense of loss. Allen toys with nostalgia, flashing back to their childhood as they play on the beach. Temporal sandy-shores hint at ongoing changes in life while crashing-waves irreversibly affect relationships. Lacking energy, Interiors is beautifully shot with deep-shadow to illustrate the depression that clouds the mind. Far from perfect, Interiors is still poignant, tapping into isolation none of us want to feel.

Rating: 6/10