Friday, August 31, 2012

The Top 10 Films of Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma is an extremely gifted filmmaker, and has been since his emergence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with his strange dark comedies, and Hitchcock inspired thrillers. He is a student of cinema past, and takes those films and filters them through his own mind, and comes up with something between homage and original. Unfortunately it seems like De Palma has lost some of his magic in the past two decades or so. Really, since 1990, he has only made two really good films (both of them are on this list), but too much of his work since that time has been visually interesting, but dramatically hollow or even silly (Snake Eyes has one of the best opening shots in cinema history – a shot worthy of Scorsese, Hitchcock, Ophuks or Welles, but then devolves into a truly awful movie, The Black Dahlia has a perfect film noir look, but is undone by horrible miscasting). Nevertheless, I will be seeing his most recent film, Passion, at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, so I thought I’d look back at his 10 best films, if for no other reason than to remind myself how good he can be.

10. Dressed to Kill (1980)
I easily could have placed Sisters (1973) or Obsession (1976) in this spot, as both of those films, along with Dressed to Kill, are among De Palma’s most obvious Hitchcock homages – and all three of them have plots that would not work if you thought about them for five minutes, but you do not really care because the style of the movie is so mesmerizing, you simply sit back and enjoy the ride. This film, a clear Psycho homage, stars Angie Dickinson as a bored housewife who is one brilliant sequence (the sequence that I finally decided merited putting this film on the list) meets a stranger in a museum, and the two play a wordless game of sexual cat and mouse, with first one character stalking the other, and then vice versa, before they finally consummate their relationship. From there, the movie takes on twist and turn after another, many of which don’t hold up to scrutiny, but then again, we don’t really care, as absorbed as we are by the style, and the performances by Dickinson, Nancy Allen, as a street wise prostitute, and Michael Caine, as a psychiatrist. I know there are lots of plot holes, but I also know I don’t care.

9. Casualties of War (1989)
Casualties of War is not a great film – but had it been shortened, it well could have been. The film is based on the shocking true story of an American unit of five men in Vietnam who are sent out on patrol. Their Commanding Officer, played by a brilliant Sean Penn, is enraged that the MPs won’t let him go into town and get a prostitute, so instead he decides that, along with his four underlings, that they will go into a nearby village and kidnap a girl to fill their sexual needs on patrol. Hearing this, a Private (Michael J. Fox) does not believe him – but it becomes all too real when they actually do kidnap a girl, and force her to march alongside them on patrol. The other four men will eventually rape and kill the girl – and Fox will try to get the military to press charges against them. The bookending scenes at the beginning and the end don’t really work too well – they are too contrived. And yet the scenes in the jungle, where a decent man tries in vain to stop a violent one, who bullies everyone to go along with, are brilliant. There is a greater, shorter film in Casualties of War.

8. Carlito’s Way (1993)
In Carlito’s Way, Al Pacino stars as a Puerto Rican gangster in New York City, who has been released from prison on a technicality, and says he wants to go straight. All he needs to do is make a little money so he can invest alongside his friend in a car rental business in the Bahamas. And yet, Carlito knows nothing about going straight – his only friends are criminals, or his attorney (Sean Penn, who is easily the best thing in the movie), who is basically a criminal as well, and so, as the movie goes along, it becomes clear that Carlito will not get his happy ending – but then again, he doesn’t really deserve one - he should have died in prison. Al Pacino has a gift for playing these larger than life characters – and Carlito bears a resemblance to another gangster he played for De Palma, except a little older and wiser, and he carries the movie, and allows the colorful supporting cast to be truly bizarre at times. The film also has a number of great action set pieces – De Palma’s specialty. Carlito’s Way is a wonderful gangster movie.

7. The Untouchables (1987)
The Untouchables may not be among De Palma’s most daring works, but it certainly ranks as one of his most entertaining and satisfying. From Kevin Costner’s square jawed Elliot Ness, to Sean Connery, obviously having a blast in his Oscar winning performance as his mentor to Robert DeNiro, chewing the scenery brilliantly as a larger than life Al Capone, the cast is uniformly excellent. The movie also has several great action set pieces – the now infamous one in the train station playing homage to Battleship Potemkin, being the best, although there are some other great ones as well. True, The Untouchables is a movie built on clichés – there is hardly an original moment in its running time, but as straight ahead, Hollywood entertainment, The Untouchables is great fun.

6. Hi, Mom! (1970)
De Palma’s early, demented black comedy Hi, Mom! sees the director at his most experimental and ambitious – in fact, perhaps a touch too ambitious, as this is a very strange, unwieldy film, but also a great one. It stars a young Robert DeNiro, reprising his role from De Palma’s Greetings, as a Vietnam vet home from the war, who moves starts the movie wanting to making pornography – but a realistic pornography, than combines elements of cinema verite, moving on to becoming an actor for an strange, underground theater troupe (which includes the infamous Be Black, Baby! sequence), and finally becoming a domestic terrorist. If this all sounds very strange, that is because it is, but it is also among the most complex of De Palma’s films, one that very early on addresses his fascination with voyeurism, and the link between sex and violence. I cannot say that Hi, Mom is a completely successful film – it throws everything at the wall to see what will stick – but it certainly in an interesting one.

5. Body Double (1984)
In many ways, Body Double resembles De Palma’s other blatant Hitchcock homages – Sisters, Obsession and Dressed to Kill – except this one actually has a much better, much less flawed plot, and characters who are easier to believe. This one stars Craig Wasson as an unemployed actor whose friend lets him stay at his house for a few days when he’s out of town. It’s one of those strange houses on stilts around L.A., and his friends shows him the sights – especially the sexy neighbor who does a striptease in front of a window every night. Wasson cannot help himself, and watches her through a telescope, but starts to believe that she is in danger (Rear Window anyone?). From there, I won’t spoil the rest of the plot, except to say that the movie takes a strange but completely logical turn into the world of pornography – and contains one of the best performances of Melanie Griffith’s career as a porn star Wasson enlists to help him. The movie is sexy, violent and over the top – but also masterfully directed by De Palma, who here, finally directed a film that was not mere Hitchcock homage – but worthy of the master himself.

4. Scarface (1983)
Scarface is probably De Palma’s most famous film these days, which is odd when you consider who reviled by many critics when it was released back in 1983. But for whatever reasons, the world of rap has embraced the film, and Tony Montana, as a model for their life of excess – which is pretty sad when you think about the film itself. But De Palma’s violent gangster saga is not to blame for its followers – because on its own terms it a brilliant, violent, epic gangster film, with a brilliantly over the top Al Pacino, as a Cuban refugee who comes to Miami to make money – because along with money comes power, and with power comes respect. Montana rises up in the criminal underworld because he lets nothing stand in his way – he will do anything, as those around him will eventually find out. The screenplay by Oliver Stone is one that mixes the over the top violence with a political statement about America, and Cuba for that matter, but is above all a character study of a man who starts out as ambitious, and achieves everything he wants, but ends up drowning in his own excess. Scarface is a great movie because Stone, Pacino and De Palma all know it has be larger than life for it to work at all – and none of them were afraid to go there.

3. Femme Fatale (2002)
Femme Fatale is an exercise in pure cinema style. It opens with a jewel heist and a brazen one at that, as a team of seemingly highly trained thieves send the beautiful Laure Ashe (Rebecca Romijn) to a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where she ends up seducing a model in a bathroom wearing millions in jewels – and then ends up getting away with it – and screwing over her partners. Seven years later, a woman who looks a lot like Laure Ashe is back in Paris, and is photographed by a paparazzi photographer (Antonio Banderas), and is determined to get those photos back – no matter what she has to do to get them. This is a sexy film where Romijn proved that while she may not be a great actress, she at least had to good sense to know that this was the role she was born to play – Hitchcock would have loved her, and De Palma certainly does. The movie twists and turns, and keeps you guessing right to very end. It is a sexy thriller in the very best sense of the word. Now, is it really THAT much better than the similar films De Palma made in the 1970s and 1980s, or does it just seem so because it is the type of film that no one but De Palma would even think to make anymore? I honestly have no idea. But I love it just the same.

2. Blow Out (1981)

Blow Out is the best of De Palma’s Hitchcockian thrillers because, to me anyway, it is the one that most clearly moves beyond just mere homage, and gets to something deeper, darker and more original than those other films. In this one, John Travolta plays a B-movie soundman, out on a bridge late one night recording background noise, when he witnesses a car accident, as a car plunges off the bridge into the water below. He dives in, and saves the girl (Nancy Allen), but not the man who dies. What he discovers is that the man was a possible Presidential candidate, and when he goes back and listens to his tapes, he thinks he hears not just the blow out of the tire – but also a gunshot. Was this not an accident at all, but rather a murder? Travolta becomes obsessed trying to piece this altogether, and his investigation leads to a rogues gallery of people – Nancy Allen, not just an innocent victim, Dennis Franz as a slimy P.I., but not quite THAT slimy, and John Lithgow as a ruthless political fixer - and a possible, massive political conspiracy. Unlike many thrillers, these people do not behave as they do merely to serve the plot, but respond like real people would. The movie ends on a bleak, but fitting note. Yes, you can point out the influences in Blow Out – Hitchcock in the chase scene through the crowded streets of Philadelphia during an anniversary celebration of the Liberty Bell, Antonioni in the concept of a man driven to extremes thinking he has captured a murder that no one will believe – but De Palma moves beyond his influences here, and crafted his most complete thriller – one that it definitely his.

1. Carrie (1976)
Carrie is one of the best horror movies ever made, because it is one of those horror films that feels the most real. No, I do not believe in telekinesis, but the horror that grows in Carrie is a horror that comes out of the story and its characters – and not just a bit of tacked on bloodletting for commercial reasons. Sissy Spacek delivers a terrifyingly realistic performance as the pretty, painfully shy Carrie, who is tormented at school by the popular kids (the scenes involving the tampon are truly horrifying, but not in a horror movie way) but it pales in comparison to what she goes through at home, at the hands of her religiously fanatical mother, who is so scared of sexuality, that she will never let Carrie develop to be a normal girl. De Palma has often, rightfully, been accused of caring more about style than substance – but here, he lets the movie develop naturally, and takes his time setting up the characters, so that the horror when it comes, actually does come from a real place – which makes it all the more terrifying. Spacek and Laurie are brilliant in this movie to be sure, and while De Palma may be more restrained at times in Carrie than normal, it works – and he does let his stylistics out to play at points, most memorably as Carrie dances with her prom date, which first seems romantic, and then spins wildly out of control as De Palma’s camera moves faster and faster around them. Carrie may not be De Palma’s most “Brian De Palma” film (if that makes sense, and it does to me), but it is the best film he has ever made.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Movie Review: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai
Directed by: Takashi Miike.
Written by: Kikumi Yamagishi based on the novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi.
Starring: Ebizô Ichikawa (Hanshirô Tsugumo), Kôji Yakusho (Kageyu), Hikari Mitsushima (Miho), Eita (Motome).

Remaking a masterpiece is hardly ever a good idea – and make no mistake about it, Masaki Kobayashis 1962 film Harakiri is a masterpiece – one of the greatest of all samurai films. Unlike many samurai films which are set near the end of the samurai era, to show the crumbling of a honorable society, Kobayashi set his film near the beginning of the samurai era to show how the samurai era was never great – that their much vaunted concept of honor was really just a hollow, meaningless veneer. Kobayashi made a masterpiece, and every other telling of this story should pale in comparison.

But Takashi Miike has never been a filmmaker who is easily intimidated. He has made a career – and developed a rather healthy cult following – by being the most extreme of all the extreme Asian directors. Since he made his directorial debut in 1991, Miike has an astonishing 88 directing credits – ranging from theatrical features, to straight to DVD titles, to TV miniseries, to episodic television, as well as the odd short film or segment of an omnibus film. He has developed a reputation because his most well-known films are extremely violent and disturbing – from the bloody as hell Ichi the Killer, to the Hitchcockian thriller with a disturbing twist in Audition, to his over the top musical of a murdering family The Happiness of Katakuris, to the demented Visitor Q about the most disturbed family you could possibly imagine, to his surreal, Lynchian diversions like Izo and Gozu, to his episode of the short lived American TV series, Masters of Horror, deemed too disturbing for broadcast. Miike has made one extreme film after another after another. You would think with so many films on his resume, that some would feel merely phoned in – rushed through shooting and editing and put out there simply to make money. But although I have not liked all of the films of his I have seen (which is really, just a fraction of what he has made), that has never been the case. Last year, Miike took a step towards respectability with 13 Assassins, which for me was the best samurai film in years. And with Hara Kiri, he has even outdone that. Some of his fans may want him to go back the extremes of his earlier films – but for me, I like the new, tamer Miike. He seems to be learning that sometimes, less is more.

The movie follows the same storyline of the original. A masterless samurai, or ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Ebizo Ichikawa) shows up at the gates of the great Iyi clan, requesting the honor of seppuku – or ritual suicide – or their hollowed grounds. The master of the Iyi samurai is frustrated – “another one” he says – and we get the story that many masterless samurai are showing up at their gates – and the gates of the other big clans – feigning seppuku, hoping that the clan will take pity on them, and either give them a job, or at least a few coins, to simply go away. They let Hanshiro in, and tell him the story of the last samurai who requested the honor – a young man named Motomo – who when he realized the Iyi clan was actually going to grant his request – and not just give him some money – requested time, and then begged for just 3 ryo to leave. But the Iyi clan wanted to send a message – and made Motomo go through with it – even going so far as making him use his own, pathetic, bamboo sword, to do it, and make him go through agony before finally ending his life. Do you still want to go through with seppuku, they ask Hanshiro. Of course. He has only one request – that the same man who was Motomo's second (or the man who will end his life after he eviscerates himself) be his as well. The only problem is they cannot find him. So Hanshiro asks for one of two other samurais – and again, they cannot find them. At this point, the Iyi clan is getting genuinely suspicious of the man they have let in. They want to know his story – and so he tells it.

Most of the movie is made up of Hanshiro's tragic story – going from a high ranking, and wealthy samurai for a great clan, to a penniless single father, raising his daughter and the son of an old colleague who has died. He is a loving father, and eventually a doting grandfather. But things go horribly, tragically wrong – and that is what has led him to the Iyi clan’s door. He fully intends to die – he just wants to shame the Iyi clan first – and show their thin veneer of honor for the hollow lie that it really is.

I’m sure that many of Miikes most diehard fans are going to be disappointed by Harakiri. The movie is mostly talk, and although when the violence in the movie happens – the brutal seppuku of Motomo early in the film, and the epic, one against many samurai battle climax – happens, it as bloody and violent as they could hope for, they really are a minor part of the movie. This is a tragic story about how those who are punished are not the ones who are responsible. Hanshiro, and Motomo, are powerless to change their lot in life. They were not responsible for the collapse of their clan, but it is they, and not their master, who has to pay the price of that collapse.

The film is the most gorgeous film that Miike has ever made. The opulence of the Iyi palace is offset by the dire, shacks that Hanshiro lives in. Miike, like Kobayashi before him, favors long takes – often shot through doors or windows, and slow tracking shots, that often times is obscured by polls on their journey. When the beautiful snow falls at key points in the film, we know that death is near.

In Harakiri, Miike pays tribute to one of the great samurai films of all time – but one of the greatest Japanese directors ever. His film is very similar to Kobayashis, which will probably lead some to question why he decided to make it at all. But while Miikes film is respectful of what has come before, this is a new version – one that is even darker that Kobayashis, with an even greater sense of tragedy at its core, and ends with Hanshiro shaming the Iyi clan even more than he did in the Kobayashi film. No, I do not think it is quite the masterpiece that Kobayashis film was – that also had the added benefit of being more timely, a definite statement on Japan in the post WWII era, whereas this Miike film remains merely an excellent period piece. But Miike has shown great restraint here – he is no longer simply try to shock the audience, but to make them feel as well. And that in itself is shocking from Miike. I was a fan of his extreme films near the beginning of the 2000s, but gradually I outgrew them – admiring the skill in the execution much more than the films themselves. But Miike has finally shown growth – and this is one the best films he has ever made. 

Movie Review: The Moth Diaries

The Moth Diaries
Directed by: Mary Harron.
Written by: Mary Harron based on the novel by Rachel Klein.
Starring: Sarah Bolger (Rebecca), Lily Cole (Ernessa), Sarah Gadon (Lucie), Scott Speedman (Mr. Davies), Anne Day-Jones (Rebecca's mother), Valerie Tian (Charlie), Melissa Farman (Dora), Judy Parfitt (Miss Rood).

You would be forgiven for thinking that a teenage, lesbian, vampire film from Mary Harron, director of American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page would be, at the very least, an overheated guilty pleasure, and perhaps something more. Harron is a talented director, who put a feminist spin Brett Easton Ellis infamous book about Patrick Bateman, and made an insightful film about the famed 1950s pinup model. Both of those films work on a few levels – on the surface, American Psycho is an ultra-violent exploitation film, but there is more going on beneath the surface. The Notorious Bettie Page looks at both the eroticism and ridiculousness of porn – how something so silly to the people involved can be taken so seriously by others. Because both of those films are so good, it makes The Moth Diaries all the more disappointing. I’m sure that the movie got green lit at least in part because of the Twilight phenomenon – but that doesn’t mean Harron has to get her teenage protagonists to stare at each other with the same blank look at the Twilight stars do.

The movie takes place at an all-girls boarding school. Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) has been going there for a few years now – ever since her poet father committed suicide – and has become best friends with Lucie (Sarah Gadon). With a new year upon them, they are looking forward to picking up where they left off last year – as inseparable best friends.  But there is a new girl on campus – Ernessa (Lily Cole), who is thin and pale and quiet. She always seems to be whispering something in Lucie's ear – and Lucie has starting withdrawing from Rebecca. And of course, Rebecca is taking a literature course right now concentrating on vampire fiction, with the hot new teacher Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman), who may admire Rebecca a little too much.

I have a feeling Harron, who also wrote this adaptation of Rachel Klein’s novel, wanted to thwart the expectations of audiences who got excited when they heard it was a teenage, lesbian, vampire, boarding school film – hell that sounds like it should be a fun exploitation movie. But Harron takes the material seriously – too seriously. This is a movie where female hormones are flying, or at least should be, but Harron, instead of trying to exploit this, decides to push it too far in the background. It’s hard to blame her – adding a different perspective than anyone was expecting  helped make American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page as good as they were. But stripped of those raging, female hormones – the casual, flirtatious relationship between the girls, the way they talk about Mr. Davies, and some of their sexual experiences with boys from a nearby school – the movie seems rather toothless. This is a coming of age film that is at least in part about sexual awakening – and devoid of passion, sexual awakening is rather dull.  I understand why there is very little of the violence we would expect in a vampire film, because it is after all told from Rebecca’s point of view and she is not Ernessa’s initial target. But that also takes away some of the mixture of sex and death that make vampire films what they are.

Harron is an immensely talented filmmaker – and I will look forward to whatever she does next. I appreciate that she tried to provide an antidote to the Twilight films in her teenage vampire film, but there is such a thing as trying too hard – and that is what she does here. She wants to defy out expectations – and that she does. But that is not always a good thing

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Remembering The Films of Tony Scott

Since Tony Scott’s shocking suicide last week, I have been meaning to write something, but I have to admit that I am somewhat at a loss for words. Unlike his most adamant supporters, I do not claim that any of his late films are misunderstood masterworks, but unlike his many detractors, I certainly do not see them as the work of a hack. I do see Scott as someone who was constantly pushing himself – and his films – though. He worked in Hollywood’s blockbuster model, even though he only made one sequel, and never did a superhero movie, his movies certainly represented Hollywood at its BIGGEST – and at times its boldest.

His early films were fine, if nothing particularly outstanding. I know some people love The Hunger (1983), Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Days of Thunder (1990) and The Last Boy Scout (1991), and while I can’t say that any of them are masterworks, they are agreeable, mainstream movies, full of broad violence and comedy. I never saw Revenge (1989), which was considered a flop at the time, but which in the past week, I have heard many say is perhaps his best film from this period. From the beginning, his films were BIG and over the top. He worked with Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson a lot, and like many of the films they produced, they had the same style. Had Scott continued in this vein throughout his career than the criticism that he was a hack – albeit a very talented one – would be a valid one.

But in 1993 he made a film that was undeniably HIS – in True Romance. The screenplay was written by a young writer who never had anything made before – named Quentin Tarantino. Scott apparently wanted Reservoir Dogs, but “settled” for True Romance, since Tarantino was already preparing to direct the previous film. True Romance certainly resembles a Tarantino movie – with its non-stop talk, full of memorable dialogue and pop culture references. And Scott does a great job of getting his actors to be their best – especially in small roles, where Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Saul Rubinek and Bronson Pinchot shine brightest. At the center of the movie is the love story between Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, and as Tarantino had written it, he was going to make you fall in love with the characters, and then kill off Slater – a cynical gut punch to the audience. But Scott was too much in love with the couple to do that – and refused to kill off Slater. Even Tarantino now admits that Scott made the right choice – for his movie anyway (Tarantino insists that if he had directed the film, his ending would have been better). True Romance remains one of Scott’s best films.

After True Romance, Scott continued to work in the Bruckheimer/Simpson factory – but certainly made better films for them than most did. Crimson Tide (1995) is as good as any submarine movie – claustrophobic and intense, and built just as much on the characters as the action and special effects. The less said about The Fan (1996), with Robert DeNiro as an obsessed baseball fan, who turns violent against his hero (Wesley Snipes), the better – but maybe it was Scott’s attempt at more serious fare. Realizing he wasn’t Martin Scorsese, he returned to what he knew best – action movies and thrillers. Both Enemy of the State (1998) and Spy Game (2001) are top notch examples of both. Scott certainly did what has become known as the Michael Bay style of rapid fire editing better than Bay ever has – and at the very least, both of these movies are coherent action films, unlike most of Bay’s work.

And yet, if I were to look at the Tony Scott’s legacy, I think his most innovative and memorable movies were the five movies he made between 2004 and 2010 – Man on Fire (2004), Domino (2005), Déjà vu (2006), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and Unstoppable (2010). No, I do not think any of them are masterpieces – but all of them push style to the extreme, and then push even further. Unlike Bay, who seems content on repeating himself time after time, Scott was pushing his style further and further. These films have become influential to many action filmmakers in Hollywood – and almost no one can do them better than Scott did.

Man on Fire may just be his best film – an over the top revenge story where an alcoholic former military man (Denzel Washington) is stuck becoming a body guard for a rich girl (Dakota Fanning) in South America, who surprisingly finds himself loving the little girl he has vowed to protect. And when she is taken from him, he goes crazy – and seeks revenge on anyone who had anything to do it. Scott continued with his rapid fire cutting in Man on Fire, but also experimented with other things – like the bizarre color palette his later films would have, the excessive slow motion, used at seemingly strange times (the lighting of a cigarette for example). Starting with Man on Fire, Scott no longer seemed to concern himself with being at all believable – he pushed everything to the extreme.

His next film was the gloriously insane, over the top Domino, about a rich girl (Keira Knightley) who becomes a bounty hunter, and gets involved with one bizarre person and incident after another. The violence is over the top from the get go here – you cannot believe a second of – but it has such a delirious energy, you cannot look away.

I may not have been a huge fan of Déjà Vu when I saw it back in 2006, but looking back at it now, it seems better than when I first saw it. The movie seems in many ways to be a take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo – where the hero essentially falls in love with a dead woman. The sci-fi premise of Déjà Vu is that a machine allows you to look back into the past to see what actually happened, which of course helps police solve crimes. But then Denzel Washington’s cop falls in love with the murder victim on his most recent case – and is determined to do more than simply look back – but actually go back and save her. Déjà Vu is much more complicated than it first appears – and a perfect vehicle for Scott’s style.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is a more straight forward action movie – with John Travolta as a bad guy who takes a subway car hostage and demands money, and Denzel Washington as the cop trying to negotiate with them. This was a more down to earth movie than Déjà Vu or Domino or Man on Fire, not quite having as much fun with all the excess he was then – and perhaps that’s why the reviews were much nicer to it.

His final film was Unstoppable, which was pretty much a perfect vehicle for Scott. This film is about a runaway train, and the two train operators – grizzled vet Denzel Washington and new kid Chris Pine – who have to try and stop it. Since the story was simple – essentially two hours of a train running out of control – it allowed Scott to practice his relentless approach, and amp up the intensity and energy to match that of his story.

It is in these five films, sadly Scott’s last five, in which Scott pushed himself further and further – and strangely, although audiences seemed more than willing to embrace these films, critics seemed more than willing to bash them. Some of his most high minded supporters compare him to avant garde filmmakers – his films becoming more abstract as he moved on his career. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it does seem to me in these five films that Scott is pushing himself – is trying something new in each of his movies. His editing becomes more experimental, his images more exaggerated – his use of slow motion turned seemingly non-important incidents into monumental moments. It is easy to mock these images – and certainly I have at times, since although I admire Scott for trying something new each time, it didn’t always work. There are moments in all five of these films which, truth be told, are downright silly and ridiculous. And yet, while Scott had reached the height of success in Hollywood, he never rested on his laurels – he didn’t phone in his movies. In each passing film, he tried something new, unique and totally his own. I completely understand if you hate these films – they are easy to hate in many ways – but they are not the work of a hack. I often felt over this time period that Scott was striving to achieve something wholly unique and innovative – he just hadn’t quite found the right material yet to make his masterpiece. Sadly, he never quite did, despite my admiration for these later films. But while he was here, I sure had fun watching him try.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ranking Michael Haneke

I have been busy in the past week – first week back at work after 6 months of paternity leave and planning my annual TIFF expedition – so my apologies for lack of activity here. While planning my TIFF trip, I put two films as my “Must Sees” – P.T. Anderson’s The Master, and Michael Haneke’s Amour. Sadly, I did not get a ticket for The Master – but I did get one for Amour. This gives me an excuse to look back at the films of Michael Haneke, who has made quite a name for himself over the past two decades as Europe’s premier film provocateur (yes, more than Lars von Trier, who’s pretty damn good at it himself). I haven’t seen Haneke’s vast amount of TV work, or his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, which has proven hard to find. I have seen his other 10 films however, and I present them to you ranked from 9-1 (yes, that’s odd, but read the list, and it makes sense immediately). All are worth at least a look.

9. Funny Games (1997/2007)
I include both of Haneke’s versions of Funny Games in one spot because they are essentially the same film – one just happens to be in English and the other not, but the 2007 American version has the same dialogue, and is pretty much a shot for shot remake of his original. Both films are effective, and yet I must say I find both films to be rather juvenile. Haneke himself has indicated that he sees Funny Games as a test – those who do not need to see the film, will walk out – while those who do need it, will stay to the bitter end. The movie is about two preppy looking teenagers who come to the summer house of an affluent couple and their son. They start out nice – perhaps too nice, as something is not right about them – and then proceed to put the family through their own warped “games”, which start innocently – seeing how many eggs they can get them to give them – and eventually will proceed to torture and murder. Haneke’s point is all this is happening only because we are watching – he has one of the killers wink at the audience at some point – and he’s trying to get the audience to acknowledge their own bloodlust – get them to admit that they want to see the family murder their torturers – which the father is able to do at one point, shooting one of their captors, but since that isn’t part of the plan, the other one picks up the TV remote, and rewinds the action so that it didn’t happen. Haneke has a point, but it’s an easy and crude one, and frankly, it is beneath him. That said, both films are well made and well acted – and strangely if you’re only going to see one (and truth be told, if you see one, there really is no reason to see the other one), I’d go with the American remake, as I think Naomi Watts and Michael Pitt are brilliant in the film, and elevate the material a little bit. I guess Funny Games served his purpose – it was his international breakthrough back in 1997 – and allowed him to go on to bigger and better things.

8. 71 Fragments from a Chronology of Chance (1994)
Looking back at it now, Haneke’s third feature seems more like a dry run for his later, better film Code Unknown. Here, the action starts with a bank robbery where three people are murdered, and the 19 year old culprit commits suicide. Haneke than flashes back to give us precisely what the title implies – 71 scenes, some long, some short, that shows how everyone ended up at that bank at that time. Haneke takes shots at his favorite targets – alienation, media saturation and violence – as he coldly and calculatingly moves towards the movies conclusion that we already know from the first scene, giving the whole movie a feeling of dread and inevitability. This is a skilled, meticulously crafted film, but it’s on that point forward, to the greatness Haneke would later achieve.

7. The Time of the Wolf (2003)
The opening of The Time of the Wolf, recalls Funny Games, as a family shows up at their summer home. But instead of the idyllic vacation they were planning on, they find the house already occupied by squatters – who murder the patriarch, and send Isabelle Huppert and her children out into the wilderness. It appears that while the family was travelling to their summer home, the world has essentially collapsed, and Huppert and her kids have to struggle to maintain their sanity, and hold onto some sort of normalcy and hope – eventually they wind up with many others waiting at a train station for a train they are told will eventually show up. This is a story of man’s own self destruction – it is largely implied that humans are responsible for whatever this “apocalypse” is. Yet as grim as most of this film is – and the first, terrifying hour is better than the second, more philosophical one – this strangely may be Haneke’s most hopeful film. While no one is saved at the end of The Time of the Wolf, that last shot really does seem to looking out the window of a moving train.

6. Benny’s Video (1992)
Haneke’s second film may be a little bit obvious, but that doesn’t distract from its disturbing power. The film opens with a fuzzy VHS tape playing the killing of a pig with one of those bolt guns. We soon pull back, and are inside Benny’s room. Benny is a young teenager; with a successful money making scheme at school, who has filled his room with video equipment and TVs – this is how he sees the world, through these things. When watching horror movies and atrocities on the news grows tiresome for him – he picks up a girl at a local video store, and brings her back to his room – to make his own violent video. His parents are clueless as to how damaged their son is until it is far too late – and then they try to cover for him, which will cost them, again, because of Benny. The movie, like most of Haneke’s early work is about isolation and our collected media fixation, and while it could be said that Haneke’s point is an obvious one, it doesn’t really distract from this disturbing film.

5. Code Unknown (2000)
As mentioned before, Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance really seems to be like a dry run for the themes and structure of Code Unknown – an even better film, where Haneke perfected what he was trying to do. The movie is still a series of seemingly interconnected scenes that leads to a final shocking act – but Haneke has refined the technique, giving his characters more depth and more interest. He also managed to get Juliette Binoche in his film as an actress, who may not be as liberal as she thinks she is. And the shocking act here is much less deadly than in the previous film, and yet just as shocking. In many ways, it feels like Code Unknown was the film Haneke had being trying to make up throughout the 1990s – and when he finally nailed it, he was able to move on.

4. The Seventh Continent (1989)
Strangely, Haneke’s first feature, The Seventh Continent, is more confident and subtle than most of his films he made in the following decade. The film centers on a middle class couple named Georg and Anna (like all of Haneke’s films), who along with their daughter Eva, seem to live a normal, happy existence. And then one day, for no reason, they decide to throw it all away and kill themselves. Before they do, they decide to empty their bank accounts, and destroy everything they own. Haneke gives no reason why the decided to do this, although the film heavily implies that it has to do with isolation and the alienating effects of the modern world – showing us  a day of their lives in both 1987 and 1988, which are basically the same thing, before they decide to do what they do in 1989. The Seventh Continent is a chilling film – and showed right off the bat just how good Haneke could be.

3. The White Ribbon (2009)
The White Ribbon is a black and white visual masterpiece – and one of the most haunting films in recent years. It takes place in a small German village just before the outbreak of WWI. Everyone plays the role they are supposed to – and in fact, almost all of the adult characters are never really given names, just job descriptions, and they do what they must. Then a series of disturbing incidents start to happen – people are hurt or killed, a barn burns down. This shocks the community because nothing like this has happened before – and yet, it doesn’t appear that one person could possibly have done everything that has been done. What the hell is happening? Haneke, like he often does, never really explains the mystery of who did what in The White Ribbon – I think, because he really doesn’t care. The movie is not really about what happens, but the effect of what happens on the village – as the people with power start to take a strangle hold of the village, and freedom is sacrificed for security. The film has been read by many as Haneke’s explanation as to how the Nazis rose to power – after all, the children in this movie, would be the right age to be Hitler’s followers two decades later. But it is wider than that – and deeper. And as such, it is one of the most disturbing films in recent memory.

2. The Piano Teacher (2001)
Haneke was already a director of note when he made The Piano Teacher in 2001 – and which won three prizes at Cannes (The Grand Jury Prize, and one each for Actor and Actress), but this was the film that showed he was a master. This may well be Haneke’s most disturbing film – a film about a buried madness that shows itself slowly, although doesn’t fully explain its roots. It stars the great Isabelle Huppert as a 40-something piano instructor at a prestigious conservatory, who outwardly appears hard and cold. And yet, she visits porn shops to indulge in some of her darker fantasies, and then goes home and sleeps in the same bed as her mother. We know there is something wrong with her. But one of her students, played by Benoit Magimel, does not know that, and sets about trying to seduce her – and has no idea what he is getting himself into, as while she is certainly willing to play sexual games, they were not the ones he was thinking of. The Piano Teacher is disturbing in the extreme in its look at these two people – but especially at Huppert’s character, who in one of the best screen performances of the decade, completely owns this movie, and her disturbed and disturbing character. A lot of people hate The Piano Teacher – I understand that – but it is a great movie.

1. Cache (2005)
To this point in Haneke’s career, Cache is his masterpiece. It is a haunting and disturbing film, about the sins of the past being coming back to haunt you – and in a nation as well. It stars Daniel Auteil and Juliette as (you guessed it) an upper middle class couple, who seemingly have a near perfect life in Paris, with their teenage son. And then something disturbing starts happening. They find a videocassette on their doorstep – and it shows the front door of their home, seemingly taken from a camera standing still for hours on end. And then another video surfaces. Autiel is forced to try and figure out what is going on and why. How does a camera sit there for hours on end, and why does no one seemingly notice it? The answer, if indeed the film even provides one, is haunting. Cache has one of the most shocking moments in modern movies, that we think may explain everything, but then again, maybe it doesn’t. The same could be said for the final shot in the movie, that shows two people who shouldn’t know each other, but somehow do – but even that raises more questions than it answers, as it appears to be yet another videotape from the same source. Haneke’s films are often intricate puzzles and ones where he places far more value on the mysteries than the solutions. Cache is his greatest achievement – and one of the great films of the last 10 years.

Monday, August 27, 2012

My Mini TIFF 2012 Preview

Yesterday, I was able to pick the 10 films I will be seeing at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Long time readers will know I used to see between 25-30 films each year, but that was back in the days when I was childless, and my wife didn’t mind not seeing me for a week. Now, with a 1-year old at home, I will only be attending a few days. Next weekend, when single tickets go on sale, I am going to try and add another 2-3 films to fill in some of the blanks I have, but I know these 10 films are the ones I am going to see for sure. Sadly, my most anticipated film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, was not available for the one screening it had that I could attend. But I got my second and third most anticipated, so I’m happy. Besides, apparently The Master will open in Toronto on October 12 – which isn’t that far away. Anyway, here are the 10 films I will be seeing this year.
Amour (Michael Haneke) – I have been a Haneke fan since I saw The Piano Teacher 10 years ago, and since then I’ve gone back and seen all his films, except for his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle. His latest, which put won the Palme D’Or at Cannes (making Haneke won of the few to have won that prize twice) stars legendary French actors Jean-Louis Trintignat and Emmanuelle Riva, as an eldery couple who has to deal with the fact that one of them is slowly dying, and other is forced to care for them. This doesn’t seem like a typical Haneke film, and the reviews out of Cannes suggest as much, but Haneke is a modern master, and any time he makes a film it is an “event” film (for me anyway), so I cannot wait to see this one.
Antiviral (Brandon Cronenberg) – The son of David Cronenberg is making his debut feature with this film, which sounds a lot like something his father would have made early in his career. It is set in the near future – a dystopia of course – and is said to be a “body horror” film, which his dad specializes in. It stars Caleb Landry Jones and Sarah Gadon (who starred in Cosmopolis for Cronenberg Sr. this year) and is about a man who works at a company that supplies celebrity viruses to obsessed fans – who becomes infected with a deadly virus, and has to figure out how to cure it, or he’ll die. Reviews out of Cannes, where it played in the Un Certain Regard section, were decidedly mixed, but I’ll give this one a chance.
The Company You Keep (Robert Redford) – Robert Redford is a fine director of mainstream Hollywood fare – intelligent films for intelligent adults. His latest stars himself as a former member of The Weather Underground, in hiding for 30 years, who risks having his secrets exposed when another member (Susan Sarandon) turns herself in, and an enterprising young reporter (Shia LaBeouf) starts digging. The film, written by Lem Dobbs (who specializes in stripped to the bone thrillers like The Limey and Haywire) from a popular Neil Gordon novel (which I will try to read before the festival) has an amazing cast – Julie Christie, Sam Elliot, Brendan Gleason, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Chris Cooper and Nick Nolte. I like to break up some of the heavier films with some good, solid Hollywood entertainments – so hopefully, this is one of those.
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang  (Laurent Cantet) – French auteur Laurent Cantet (who has made excellent films like Time Out and The Class), adapts a Joyce Carol Oates novel, and shot in Sault Ste. Marie and Hamilton among other Ontario locations – for this film about a 1950s female gang. No, it doesn’t sound like a Cantet film, but he is a great filmmaker, so I’m willing to follow him anywhere. I have not read the Oates book, or seen the not highly thought of American film Foxfire from 1996 (starring a young Angelina Jolie), but this one sounds interesting.
The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg) – The wonderful Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (best known, in North America anyway, for his blood crying Bond villain in Casino Royale) won the Best Actor prize at Cannes this year for his work as a man who is accused of child molestation, and sees his world crumble down around him because of it. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, the onetime Lars von Trier protégé, who looked like he was going to be a giant of world cinema with his debut, The Celebration, but has since come nowhere close to matching it, The Hunt got some VERY mixed reviews when it played at Cannes – some calling it a masterpiece, and some seeing it as manipulative bullshit. When something is talked about THAT much, you almost have to see it for yourself.
The Iceman (Ariel Vromen) – I have to admit that I am not familiar with director Ariel Vromen’s previous films, but this one sounded too intriguing for me not to choose. It stars Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski, the infamous Mafia hit man who claims to have killed more than 100 people – but that number could actually be much higher. During his “career”, he was also married and raised kids. Shannon is one of the best actors in the world right now, and him playing a psychopathic hit man seems right up his alley. I am also intrigued by the supporting cast – Winona Ryder (please deliver another great performance), Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, James Franco and Stephen Dorff. I like Mafia movies, so I figured I’d check this one out.
The Impossible (J.A. Bayona) – I may not have been a huge fan of J.A. Bayona’s breakthrough film – the Spanish language horror film The Orphanage – but I can admit that it was a superbly directed film, even if the story felt repetitive. Here, he casts Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as a couple trying to find their kids in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, on Boxing Day 2004. I have no idea if the film is going to be an intelligent treatment of the subject matter, or simply exploitive, but I’ll give it a chance.
The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie) – I still think that rock star turned director Rob Zombie is one of the hopes for American horror films. His debut, House of 1,000 Corpses, may not have been great, but I think that may well be because he had to cut so much out for studio reasons – and there is greatness in it (the best dramatic pause in modern horror films for example). His next film, The Devil’s Rejects, remains his best, and one of the best horror films of the decade really. But even his remake of Halloween was much better than I thought it would be – Halloween II not being quite as good, but interesting to say the least. So, I’m going to keep track of Zombie’s work for now. His latest, The Lords of Salem, will be my first time seeing a Midnight Madness movie at TIFF actually at midnight – and I couldn’t think of a filmmaker I would want to see more. It takes place in Salem, so of course, it is about witches.
Passion (Brian De Palma) -  I don’t know if I’m a glutton for punishment or simply an optimist, but I choose to see Brian De Palma’s new film, even though I haven’t really liked much of what he’s done for the past 20 years (I do like Carlito’s Way and Femme Fatale but not much else). But this film, a remake of Alain Corneau’s Love Crime from 2010 (a film I will try to see before TIFF) just sounded too much like a great De Palma film from the 1970s or 80s to pass up. Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace in an corporate thriller with erotic overtones. How the hell could I not be interested in that? Let’s hope De Palma has re-found his magic.
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick) – Terrence Malick usually takes years to finish his movies, but somehow just over a year after the release of The Tree of Life, he returns with his latest film, To the Wonder (to be fair, he shoot it a while ago, so it’s certainly another of his long gestating projects). Like The Tree of Life, this one seems to be based partly on his life – as the main character, played by Ben Affleck, falls and loves and marries a woman from France (played by Olga Kurylenko), but when they return to Oklahoma, he finds himself drawn to an old girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) – much like Malick in real life in the 1980s. Javier Bardem also stars as a priest who Kurylenko is drawn to. Said to be another step away from traditional narrative, and somehow the 2008 Financial Crisis is somehow involved, To the Wonder was one of my must sees at TIFF this year. The film is having trouble finding distribution in North America, most likely because The Tree of Life didn’t exactly set the box office on fire last year, so who knows when it will be released. But Malick is a master, so any film by him becomes something I have to see.

Movie Review: Side by Side

Side by Side
Directed by: Christopher Kenneally.
Written by: Christopher Kenneally.
Featuring:  Michael Ballhaus, Dion Beebe, Danny Boyle, James Cameron, Michael Chapman, Anthony Dod Mantle, Lena Dunham, David Fincher, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Kuras, Richard Linklater, George Lucas, David Lynch, Walter Murch, Christopher Nolan, Wally Pfister, Dick Pope, Keanu Reeves, Robert Rodriguez, Tom Rothman, Joel Schumacher, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Vittorio Storaro, Lars von Trier, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Vilmos Zsigmond.

The war between film and digital is pretty much over – with digital trouncing film. What seemed unthinkable just 10 years ago has become commonplace today. Almost every movie we see is shot digitally and projected digitally, and no one really notices the difference. It wasn’t always this way. Back in the late 1990s, when the Dogma 95 filmmakers started using digital technology to make their films, anyone could notice they didn’t look like “Hollywood” films, or really any films at all. And then American indie filmmakers noticed they could make their movies for far less money, if they didn’t mind them looking like home movies – and many didn’t. Then George Lucas got involved and everything changed. A filmmaker would probably never dream of using the digital cameras he used to make Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones today – because the technology has advanced so much since then. No, you can pretty much do anything digitally – you can do what David Fincher has done, and made digital films that look like they were shot on film, or you can do what James Cameron did with Avatar, and essentially computer generate an entire “live action” movie, and everything in between. There are still a few hold outs of course – Christopher Nolan still insists on using film because he and his cinematographer Wally Pfister prefer the way it looks, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming film The Master was not only shot on film, but on 70MM, which no one has done in years. But even Nolan admits that sometime in the next 10 years, even he will have to shoot his movies digitally.

Craig Kenneally’s excellent new documentary Side by Side explores the history of digital moviemaking, and features interviews with many leading filmmakers, cinematographers, editors, actors and others. These interviews, conducted by a Keanu Reeves (for reasons I am not sure of, but it hardly matters, because Reeves proves himself to be an excellent interviewer), show how profoundly digital cinema has changed the way movies are made – and how they are seen. The movie doesn’t really offer an opinion on whether or not it’s a good or bad thing that digital has taken over, but allows people on both sides an opportunity to get their say in. Some, like Lucas or Robert Rodriguez or Steven Soderbergh are adamant that digital is the only way to go, and is vastly superior to film. Others are not convinced. When one interview subject mentions the biggest remaining problem with digital – that so far, no one has come up with an adequate way to store the films for years on end, he offers a much more pessimistic view of digital – simply saying “We’re fucked”.

If you’re a film buff, than Side by Side is a must see – certainly one of the best docs of the year so far. I’m sure to people who work in the film industry in some capacity know just how completely things have changed in the past 10 years, but if you don’t know, than Side by Side offers a nice primer – how the technology evolved from one camera to another, how editing, special effects and color timing have changed, and everything in between – and it is all laid out in a simple to follow manner. This is interesting.

What is more interesting is hearing the filmmakers themselves talk about digital cinema, why they love it, or why they hate it. It’s clear that many have fully embraced digital and what they can do with it – Robert Rodriguez talking about how Sin City would never be possible on film, James Cameron admitting as much on Avatar. But the movie also does raise the questions that many doubters out there have – has it gone too far? Is everything we are seeing just completely, utterly fake? Will the “democratization” of production, made possible by cheap cameras and cheap editing programs, ultimately be a boom for the film industry or the death of it?

My opinion on these questions, and I stress it is only my opinion, is simple. That all the new tools at the disposal of filmmakers are just that – tools. They allow a filmmaker like David Fincher to digitally age Brad Pitt seamlessly and brilliantly in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the same thing allowed Andy & Lana Wachowski to make candy colored crap like Speed Racer. It is not the technologies fault, but that of the filmmakers using it. And as for the democratization of moviemaking, it is true, that more people can make movies now than ever before. But just because you have access to the same cameras that Steven Soderbergh does, does not mean you can make the films that Steven Soderbergh does. As David Lynch points out – “Everyone has access to pen and paper – how many use it to create a great story?”.

But one thing is for sure – digital has changed the movies forever, and we are far too early on in its development to tell if ultimately it will be a good thing, or a bad thing. Only time will tell.