August 28, 2010

Catch Up Classic: Jaws

I'm aware it's been almost two months since I first posted about my Catch Up Classics. I'm even more aware of the fact that Steven Spielberg's early masterpiece, Jaws, is sadly one of them. To the first point, well, I had the Film Festival taking up a lot of time there, didn't I? As to the second, as to why I have only just seen Jaws for the first time? I... really can't say. Sorry. I have no reason, no excuse for this. Of course I've read countless articles and reviews about the film; how influential it was in the creation of the Summer Film, how it was the first film to gross $100m at the US Box Office etc. For no real discernible reason, I never got around to watching it. The other night, I finally did.

And here's the thing, some 35 years after it was first released and watching it for the first time at 28 years old and on DVD: it still works. It still holds up. This scene, with no music and with a line of humour beforehand, still works as a fantastic scare:
What Spielberg crafted three-and-a-half decades ago is one of the greatest summer films made. There's scares, laughs, action and great actors. It's a fantastically effective film with everything pared down to the bare necessities. The mastery that Spielberg exhibits (just watch the scene on the beach before the second attack: he sets up so many possible targets, it's delightfully giddy to watch as he winds the tension up) is damn near intimidating.

This really isn't a review or anything of the film. This is just me saying; my name is Andy, I'm a film lover and I hadn't seen Jaws. Now I have. And I feel I'm better for it.

August 22, 2010

03.08 & 10.08: Inception

A word of warning before we go any further: if, somehow, you're reading this and you haven't seen Christopher Nolan's Inception, skip reading this and go see it. Experience it as free of any foreknowledge as possible. It's ok, we'll wait for you.

may be the most complete Christopher Nolan film yet; it seems every film he has done previously has been working towards this cinematic dream. There is the intricate, puzzle-box nature of the endeavour, issues of control and grandiose action honed on the Batman films. It’s also his most emotionally connected film since his breakout Memento; too often his films can feel cold and distant. Not Inception thankfully which is grounded in an emotionally full way, thanks in no small part to the contribution of Leonardo DiCaprio.

This is the most intelligent summer blockbuster in quite some time. Not only is Nolan asking you to think, he’s asking you to engage. Not only do you have to follow the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream narrative (not all that hard, and surprisingly linear) but you have to engage with what's going on up there, you simply cannot be a passive audience member. Honestly, it's been a few weeks since I first saw it and I'm still mulling things over. Not in any steady, studious way but there are parts still there, ticking over in my brain. I've also read various interpretations of what it's all (really) about: is the whole thing a dream, is it real, does it matter? One reading of the film saw it as how Nolan sees the filmmaking process and how each team member represented an aspect of a film crew: DiCaprio as the Director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Producer, Tom Hardy as the Actor etc. and with the exploration of cinema being similar to a dream, it's not a big stretch. You could even argue that the whole film is an "inception": planting the idea in your head that the whole thing was a dream. Or was it? In my opinion, it doesn't matter. If it was all a dream of Cobb's, it renders it no less valid.

But going back to those actors: this is a super-star cast, with every member wringing the last drop of character from their screen time. DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt are always great to watch, and their characters and relationship carries an interesting dynamic (the first time through I though Gordon-Levitt's character, Arthur, was actually working to betray the team but at the same time he seemed like the really dependable guy). Marion Cotillard brings a real fury, and sense of loss to her femme fatale character while the most enjoyably scene stealingly watchable is Tom Hardy as Eames. After this and Bronson the man should really be a bigger star.

And Nolan balances this cast superbly, juggling the dynamics between them all. But that's not all he's juggling. My gods. The man has not only made one of the most mind-boggling films of the year, it's also a sci-fi/heist/James Bond adventure/psychoanalytical film. With some of the most staggeringly original action scenes since, well, The Matrix. This, more than The Dark Knight even, is the film that all his future work will be judged against. This is, as I said oop top thar, the film his career has built towards. I'm still pondering things around it (by the by, I'm fairly convinced the whole thing is a dream, or at the least, in his head. It fairly well spells it out at various points throughout the film) and think I will be for some time. It brings a smile to my face that something as original, intense and intelligent as this was made in today's Hollywood studio climate. Not only made, but released succesfully but picked up by audiences who were engaged with the whole thing. It's nice to think that every once in awhile, for all the sequels and retreads and Twilights and Epic/Disaster/Whatever Movies, we can still get something as truly great as this.

But hey, what did you make of Inception? Anyone want to lob their two bob in? I'd love to hear what you guys made of it.

August 16, 2010

Random Thought: What's up with Pixar?

Not so recently, news came that Pixar were developing a sequel to Cars, possibly the low point in terms of quality of their output thus far. Not only that, but there is a direct-to-DVD spin off being developed, Planes. Unnecessary? I think so.

Once upon a time, it was Pixar who convinced Disney to not do a direct-to-DVD sequel to Toy Story, as they were threatening to do. Pixar instead produced not only one of the finest sequels in cinematic history, but also one of the finest films in cinematic history. And until recently, Toy Story 2 was their only sequel. Then, of course, this year we had Toy Story 3 (which I loved, and thought was a fitting end to the series and the characters). It has gone on to become the highest grossing animated film in the UK, and looks set to be the highest grossing film of the year in the US (no doubt bolstered by 3D prices).

Pixar was, like Marvel, a House of Ideas. Their focus was on story and character. Any other studio should be (and indeed, probably is) jealous of Pixar's amazing run of films; in terms of quality and box office. Now we have Toy Story 3, Cars 2 and Monsters Inc. 2 as their next releases. This follows an announcement from a few months ago that they were shelving production on their original film, Newt (although Bear and the Bow is apparantly still going ahead). I don't want to see Pixar churning out sequels to films that were fine on their own; that said all they really needed to say. Yes, they have always said they will never make a sequel unnecessarily, but... Cars 2? Really? It was the first Pixar film I didn't see at the cinema. I've seen it a few times on DVD since, and it has grown on me. But a sequel? I honestly do not see the point.

Perhaps I should be giving Pixar the benefit of the doubt. They have, after all, gifted us with Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. Personally though, I would rather give them the benefit of the doubt with regards to a mostly dialgoue free film about a robot cleaning up a deserted Earth. Or a French rat that wants to be a chef. Or an adventure film starring an old man and a scout.

Just my opinion.

August 15, 2010

In Appreciation of... Once Upon a Time in the West

So, I know the Film Festival finished 2 weeks ago and I still haven't written some sort of wrap-up for it, but I've honestly needed this time to de-frag my brain. In addition I've got Inception and Scott Pilgrim to write up.

In the meantime though, I coerced my friend Rajeev to write about one of his favourite films ever and that had a special presentation at the Film Festival. Over to you, Jeeves...

Magical. Just amazing. I find it difficult to put into words just how much I enjoyed seeing Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (C'era una volta il West – I always feel so wanky calling it that, but it is the film's actual name) up on the giant Embassy theatre screen – New Zealand's premier picture house. I don't know a superlative good enough to describe the feeling, my vocabulary is lacking. If I had to choose a favourite film (and I hate such scenarios – when will I ever have to have just one film? It there going to be some cataclysmic film destruction event and I can only save one? Silly) it will always come down to this or Citizen Kane (I know, I know, obvious film nerd choice, I'm sorry, but have you seen it? Wow). And Once Upon a Time.. is always the winner, mainly because it's cool and has shoot-outs. And Charles Bronson.

You see, I love this movie. From the first time I saw it on ye olde VHS cassette tape, borrowed from a local video store, I was hooked. I was already a fan of Mr. Leone, having seen A Fist full of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. But this was something else. It was so serious and deadly, while at the same time having a real sense of fun. It was beautiful and grimy, a love letter to the western that was also a hard fist to its face. And that score, man, that is Morricone at his absolute best. I felt all of these things again and more seeing this played large and in charge all over the glorious Embassy cinema screen. It was like that first time all over again, except instead of a terrible VHS transfer, it was hitting my eyes in glorious 35mm film. Good god, I am a ridiculous nerd. Sorry.

It stars Charles Bronson as our hero with a cloudy past and a white hat (Harmonica); Jason Robards (Cheyenne) as a lovable outlaw, mistaken for a killer, Claudia Cardinale as the strong willed hooker with a heart of gold looking for a new life in the West (Jill McBain) and Henry Fonda as Frank, the evil gun for hire that works for the railroad. What a cast. I won't bother with anymore plot stuff, suffice to say that this is a western of the highest order. I consider the western pure cinema and this film is one of the best. It has all the great things you need: the gunslinger showdown, themes of civilisation versus wilderness, betrayal of trust, men with honour, men without honour, beautiful desert vistas and bursts of sporadic violence.

French theorist Jean Baudrillard called Once Upon a time In the West, the “first post modern film” because of the way that Leone was referencing all of his favourite westerns thoughout the story. The excellent making of documentaries on the DVD of his film reveal that Leone, and his screenwriters, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci (Argento and Bertolucci?! Can this film have a higher pedigree?) were doing just that when they were writing the screenplay. Christopher Frayling (who is the biggest Leone nerd there is) has dissected the filmic references made throughout the move and the list is amazing. I like to think of myself as a western fan, but I have seen nothing compared to what Leone and company were referencing. Here is a sample of the films:

High Noon, Rancho Notorious, Vera Cruz, The Far Country, Man Without a Star, The Man from Laramie, Two Rode Together, Sgt Routledge, The Professionals, The Iron Horse, Johnny Guitar, Shane, Night Passage, Pursued, Union Pacific, The Searchers, The Return of Frank James, Dodge City, Winchester '73 and so and so on.

The list goes on for four pages with explanations of how they relate to the film. Having seen a few westerns myself, it's easy to see that yes, Leone is referencing so many other westerns with Once Upon A Time... and I probably haven't even seen a fraction of the movies homaged. It's amazing. Tonino Delli Colli (cinematographer) recalls how when on a location scout in Monument Valley, Utah, Leone would stop the car and point at the scenery, citing where Ford had shot The Searchers or Cheyenne Autumn or Fort Apache. The man had stupidly good recall of films.

The cinematography is amazing. Leone's signature move of coupling wide vistas and often ridiculously tight close-ups is in full effect here. There is a push in on Bronson's eyes that John Carpenter says is the tightest zoom shot he has ever seen on a cinema screen. Delli Colli really captured the essence of the western with the beautiful exteriors of Monument valley (where Ford shot many of his westerns) and the deserts of Spain (where Leone had shot all of his three previous westerns). Nobody framed desert sand, rocky cliff faces and never-ending railway tracks quite like Leone and Delli Colli.

Special mention must be made of the dialogue, which is sparse, often beautiful and simply kick-ass. When Charles Bronson (who was a real tough guy – War veteran, former coal miner and lover of art) is confronted with three men at the very beginning of the film they say they're “shy one horse”, indicating they intend to kill Harmonica. He quips back “No, you brought two too many”. Brilliant. Sparse, funny, tough and almost poetic when delivered in Bronson's tough guy voice. And what about the exchange between Cheyenne and Harmonica as Bronson's character brings in Cheyenne to collect the bounty on his head:

Harmonica: The reward for this man is 5000 dollars, is that right?
Cheyenne: Judas was content for 4970 dollars less.
Harmonica: There were no dollars in them days.
Cheyenne: But sons of bitches... yeah.

They make a great pair. Both short on words, sly of delivery and just plain cool. Even though they all spoke Italian (Leone, as confirmed by Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood and Henry Fonda knew very few English words), the writers knew how to make the English dialogue sing (special mention must go out to Mickey Knox, the English language writer on the film).

I think I have gushed enough. Somebody out there in Monument Valley would have shot me by now. I am sorry, but I don't really think I am the best choice to do a proper review and that's why this is an appreciation. There are so many legends surrounding this film and I heartily recommend any of the books by Christopher Frayling for those wanting to know more. I can't really be critical of a movie I love so much. Thank you for the opportunity to go on and on about this film, Andrew. It is a masterwork, and I love every minute of its languid storytelling.

Thank you Mr. Leone, you were a true Maestro.

August 2, 2010

Film Fest: Day Seventeen

Alright. This is it. I made it. The final day of Film Festival. Thank the fucking gods. After battling through the worst of a hangover (and missing In the Attic because of said hangover), we managed to get through town in the driving wind and rain for our first film of the last day.

The Red Shoes
I actually had absolutely no intention of seeing this when I first heard it was playing. I'm rather glad I reversed that decision. This is a sweepingly big romantic melodrama that just isn't made anymore, and I'm glad I got to catch this Technicolor classic on the big screen.
The main thrust is a love triangle - between Vicky Parker the talented ballerina who lives to dance, the precocious young composer Julian... and the ballet, in the form of the obsessively controlling Lermontov. There is love, laughter, tragedy and dance. With a film like this you just have to let yourself go with the melodrama and the romance and not get caught up in minor niggling details.

Under the Southern Cross
I guess this was the closest we had to a Live Cinema event this year. The Live Cinema event – where a classic silent film is shown at the Embassy with live orchestra accompaniment – is one of my favourite parts of the Festival. This year, for reasons I’m not sure I can go into, we didn’t have the usual Live Cinema down in Wellington. Especially gutting as Auckland had Sherlock Jr. – a Buster Keaton classic.
Instead we had this film from 1928, shot in New Zealand with an all Maori cast. The score was a new thing worked up by three prominent Wellington musicians, notably Warren Maxwell of Trinity Roots, Fat Freddy’s Drop and Little Bushman. The film was due to start at 6:30pm. But as the musicians were still setting up and fiddling about (and fair enough, there should’ve been more time between this and the previous session) the doors didn’t open until 6:40pm. There were cries from the crowd beyond of “Hurry up!” and “Supposed to have started by now!” Yeah, no duh. Perhaps there’s a reason the doors haven’t opened yet? Because that’s what I wanted to deal with when I had a hangover: an angry audience.
Anyway! You’re maybe wondering about the film. The film itself was pretty standard guff: two warring tribes, two star-crossed lovers, a nefarious prince, battle, death and love. Nothing particularly exciting or new there. As for the live music… when it was there it was interesting and bold, melding new sounds to this incredibly old film. But that was the main issue – when it was there. There were long spells of no score. And always in an odd place; in a part of the film that could’ve, and should’ve, worked with a score of some sort. Somewhat disappointing, especially when what score there was there was so intriguing.
It’s a great idea to have contemporary scores to classic films, and maybe something we can begin to see more of. But the film nerd in me really does enjoy these silent classics up on the big screen with their original score. So, a return of the “classic” Live Cinema please.

Oh, this really wasn’t the film I wanted to end the final (severely hungover) day of Festival on. It’s a psychedelic head-trip of a film, an homage to Italian giallos of old. I’ve never really seen any of the giallos though so I have no idea how true to them this intensely cut, largely dialogue free film with a slim to not-there narrative, is.
I’m slightly ashamed to say, I nodded off for quite a fair bit of it. What I did see… well, I had no idea what the hell was going on. Properly freaky scary in places and intensely sexualised in others and with a killer soundtrack, ripped from films of the era I was left with impressions more than anything. Which, from talking to people afterward, would’ve been the same had I actually seen the whole thing. There are scores of quick cuts, notably on extreme blurry close-ups and use of outrageous colours. Perhaps if I was not so hungover and tired I could've soaked into the experience of it all more.

And that's that. The Film Festival over for another year. But don't worry, I'm not quite done with it yet. There's still my Festival Wrap to come and an In Appreciation Of... for Once Upon a Time in the West. It's been a crazy hectic couple of weeks, and I hope you've been reading and enjoying what I've had to say about the various films I've seen.

We will return to our irregular scheduled programming soon.

Film Fest: Day Sixteen

Ok. The penultimate day of Festival. Nearly there. Nearly finished. Just had to get through this day and to the Festival Party that night. Ahhh... it's what I've been looking forward to. Drinking, dancing and generally blowing off steam. It was a damn good night, with plenty of moves busted and beers drunk. And boy howdy, I felt it the next day. But before we get to that...

Melody for a Street Organ
There is no way I would have chosen to see this film. I was rostered on to Usher it though, so I had to. To me, it looked to be a depressing Eastern European "art" film that would be a slog. I wasn't disappointed.
The film concerns two little tykes on their way to Moscow (from somewhere in the Ukraine I think) to find their dads. They're all alone and are quickly booted off the train and robbed. I think we're supposed to care for them, but the poor performances and the fact the characters don't seem to be like real people at all, inhibits this. In fact, no-one in the film acts like a real person. Everyone encountered is some sort of cipher, meant to symbolise some belaboured point. At one point, the two kids wander into a part of the station full of people on phones. No-one has anytime for them. Everyone gestures wildly, with their hands, their face and their bodies as if they were drama school dropouts asked to act being on the telephone. It's a scene that drags on and on. And we get the point very, very quickly. The whole film is like this.
Thus, when we finally reach the obviously tragic end my only emotional response to the whole thing was: thank fuck that's over. My brain felt like it had been relentlessly pummeled with a hammer. The Symbolism and Meaning Hammer.

American: The Bill Hicks Story
This was the film I was actually looking forward to seeing today. A documentary on Bill Hicks, his life and comedy. An interesting choice was made in not showing the people talking for the majority of the run-time. Interviews with Hicks' family, friends and fellow comedians are overlayed with animated photographs, old footage of Hicks and various filmed stand-up gigs. It was hard to tell who was talking at times and it occasionally took you out of the flow of the story.
The story of Hicks' life is engaging enough, and I see what they were going for with the use of photographs. As for Hicks himself, he's one of those brilliant comics you either get or you don't. As he died way back when, I've only known of him posthumously and loved his angry, intelligent humour. He seemed to truly want to change the world. To make people laugh and really get them thinking. Of course, he wasn't amazing popular in the States. So while all of this, and the details of his life, were new to me I don't know how new it would be to true Hicks fans in the audience (like the guy sat in my room who heaved and giggled at just about every utterance from Hicks). But the footage of Hicks's first gigs, shot on home video when he was still in high school, is something to treasure. As well as home video footage of his last ever gig.
The real sadness in the Bill Hicks story is that we lost him. Like so many other great minds, we lost him early and we lost him young. Dead at 32 from pancreatic cancer, he was really beginning to become a stand-up superstar (especially in the UK, surprisingly).
If you know Hicks, if you know his comedy, you'll get a kick out of this. If you don't know Bill Hicks... please, take a listen sometime.

Film Fest: Day Fifteen

Wow. Just typing out that title "Film Fest: Day Fifteen" was a little scary. Fifteen days of constant movie watching?! Insanity. Yet here I am, still with a coupla days to go. So what was on the cinematic menu for today? A brutal noir, an uncomfortably funny comedy and a disappointing sci-fi.

The Killer Inside Me
This was one of my most anticipated films of the Festival. I've been liking what Affleck has been doing the past few years, and Winterbottom is always an interesting director to watch. Of course, when the film premiered at Sundance there was much hue and cry raised about the violence, particularly towards women. One woman calling shame down on the film, and shame down on Sundance for showing it. What a blinkered view.
Winterbottom certainly doesn't shy away from the violence. But seeing as how this is a film, based on the book of the same name, that follows a cold killer of a man would you expect the blow to be softened?
This is a brave central performance by Casey Affleck, not shying away from the cold darkness inherent to the character. He brings that smarmy style of charm so associated with his older brother, but with a dark edge to it. But we cannot forget Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, both giving brave performances in their own way. It's not usual for Hollywood starlets to allow their characters to be treated this way. They are absolutely fearless, the both of them. There are scenes, particularly with them, that are extraordinarily difficult to watch. The ending is, however, is somehow beautiful. In a twisted sort of way.
It's a brutal 50's Texas set film noir, and the obvious companion piece to it would be American Psycho.

I was not expecting to like this as much as I did. I feared some sort of hipster style comedy. I was pleasantly surprised as this is one of the best, funniest and most real romantic comedies I've ever seen.
John C. Reilly is a schlub, divorced the past seven years and still not over it. At a party he meets Marisa Tomei. And they hit it off. And things seem to be going great between them and you get the sense that this is the first happiness either of them have had for a long time. And then he meets her son. Her hyper-intelligent, passive-aggressive obsessive son, played by Jonah Hill. You remember when Robin Williams first went creepy for One Hour Photo? That's what Hill seems to be channeling here as he appears from the shadows with a blank face and false friendship to Reilly.
Unsurprisingly, given that Reilly and Hill are the male leads, the comedy is informed by the Apatow/McKay school of improvisation. Thankfully, the directors keep a rein on things becoming too absurd. They have a keen eye for relationships, and how real (and adult) relationships work and can get screwed up by the people in an around them. The similarities between John C. Reilly's character (unable to completely let go of his ex-wife) and Jonah Hill's Cyrus (unable to let go of his mum) are noted without being overplayed. The only time this very realness, this naturalness, becomes distracting is in the camera-work. The "documentary" feel to it can be distracting at times. I understand wanting to keep the camera fluid, like the scenes, but there a few too many obvious zooms for it to totally work.
However, that's a minor gripe to an overall wonderful film. It's funny, sweet, real and more than a little awkward.

Oh. Oh dear. Oh how very disappointed I was with this. From the director of Cube Vincenzo Natali and produced by Guillermo del Toro? With Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley creating an horrific abomination of nature and a crime against nature?! How could I not dig this groove? Well, it turns out... throw a bunch of cool stuff together and sometimes you get a big, cheesy disappointment. Like microwave macaroni.
Brody and Polley are cutting-edge geneticists; they're rock-star scientists, part of the geek-chic. They wear crazy-cool clothes and have a punk rock attitude to science and morals. They push the boundaries, man. So they end up creating a animal-human collage like creature before their funding gets pulled. And from there... well, every beat is pretty predictable. An anonymous female donor is mentioned and, guess what? It turns out to be Polley! With the running (more brisk walking) and hiding there's no real sense of tension or horror. Their quickly growing (and maturing) creation/daughter Dren tends to just... hang out.
The interplay between the three of them and the shift in dynamics is largely handled well; Polley first protecting Dren and then clashing with her and Brody at first wanting to destroy her and then... well, this is where the film lost me actually. You see, Brody and Dren... get it on. Down'n'dirty in the hideout: the scientist and the creation. The audience lapped it up, whooping with laughter at the pure ridiculousness of it.
There were quite a few moments of that: unintentional laughter. Splice was a very serious-faced B-movie that didn't pull it off. Which is a real shame because I love genre films, I love sci-fi and I love the potential of a great idea. It just didn't happen here.