Monday, July 31, 2006

Paul Giamatti talks to the Observer

Read this interview with Paul Giamatti, the star of Sideways (2005) and M Night Shyamalan's new film Lady in the Water in the Observer yesterday which gives a nice insight into Giamatti's private and professional life.

Tarnation (2004)

Not much to say about this, except that I wasn't bowled over. The frenetic style was too much; I expected it to settle down to a more realistic pace after the hectic opening, but it continued relentlessly and confusingly for the entire film.

Tarnation is directed by Jonathan Caouette, a New Yorker (but native Texan) who filmed himself and his family from a young age and made this documentary about it. The story contains some fascinating and disturbing elements: His mother was subjected to electric-shock therapy that sent her spiralling into a lifetime of severe depression and mental illness; Jonathan had a bad drugs experience as a child that left him with a depersonalization disorder; there's a great story to be told here, but it's all told so badly. I decided to listen to the commentary in the hope that I could understand better where the director was coming from, but it felt like the commentary was telling me all the things that should have been told in the film itself.

Caouette put together the film, for the most part, on his AppleMac, using iMovie. I read somewhere he used every single gimmick and effect the programme offered, and I have no trouble believing it.

My rating? * * * * * (2/5)

The End

50 greatest movie endings of all time at Nice analysis. (Spoiler warning!)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Cars (2006)

In a present-day America inhabited by cars, Rookie racing car Lightning McQueen is competing with the reigning champion The King and scheming runners-up Chick Hicks for the Piston Cup. The NASCAR-style race ends in a three-way tie and is rescheduled to take place in California. On the way there, McQueen is separated from his truck, ends up in the remote city Radiator Spring off the Route 66 and
destroys the highway road leading through the town. In the ensuing trial, town eldest Doc Hudson sentences McQueen to repave the road. Having his attempts to escape foiled by the sheriff, McQueen befriends tow truck Mater and motel owner Sally, and comes to appreciate the value of friendship and community spirit before he sets out to California.

It was bound to happen eventually: after a string of innovative films ranging from decent (A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc) to great (The Incredibles, the Toy Story films), Pixar come up short with their seventh feature Cars. If it was merely that, I would find it easier to shrug it off, but the almost complete lack of the wit, nuance and humanity that has been at the heart of Pixar's earlier films is keenly felt in Cars; and since the picture doesn't justify its 2 hour length with real dramatic weight, it's discomfortingly bloated, too. How kids, the studio's target audience, will take to John Lasseter's love letter to NASCAR racing and 1950s Americana is anyone's guess. It moves along at a grinding pace and its issues are too familiar, the plotting too predictable which would matter less if Pixar carried it off with their usual panache: an arrogant upshot from the big city is left stranded in small-town America to learn a lesson of humility, to discover the true values of friendship and community spirit and to appreciate the pleasures of a modest life. There simply is too little at stake and I found it hard to identify with most of the characters (except for tow truck Mater, a spirited performance from Larry the Cable Guy): it doesn't help that the cars have less expressive character features than other Pixar heroes and that the animation looks curiously flat and less vivid than in Finding Nemo or The Incredibles. That said, the background scenery has been realised with the same loving care and attention as in the previous films and is often spectacular to look at, except for the race setpieces where the crowds look too much the same.

What the film expresses (particularly in a scene where Sally reflects wistfully on the days of old) is a deep longing for the 50's way of living, a time where life was simpler, less consumerist and materialistic; a more innocent time before technological progress (the building of the motorways) and a faster and grander lifestyle took over. The film speaks out for community spirit and bonding among friends as opposed to the solitude that fame brings with it, and there's no doubting the sincerity of that statement but it's too familar and flatly delivered. Cars strikes no emotional chord which is no mean feat when you consider that Lasseter himself included, eight writers (yes, eight!) are credited with the script. Even the film and pop culture references, where Pixar usually outclass the dimwits at Dreamworks, feel a bit stale: the hero is named after Steve McQueen, and one bit character is modelled on US talkshow host Jay Leno (quite how the wilfully unfunny Leno warrants such honours is beyond me) while the end credits play in somewhat blase character homage to Pixar's earlier work. One of the better inventions is the Humvee Sarge (who amusingly gets to drill other cars for combat in the closing credits) and there's a nice cameo by Michael Schumacher as a Ferrari, but genuinely arresting scenes are too far in between. The short One-Man-Band that plays before the main feature and which has two poor musicians, a trompeter and a violinist, competing with each other for the affection of a young girl to earn her penny, is funnier and more involving than Cars is in its entirety (come to think of it, is it too much to hope that Pixar release a DVD bundling all their shorts together?). When a Pixar film fails to speak to our hearts and minds, it is in itself and in the context of their hitherto impeccable track record not so much disappointing than comprehensible and perhaps inevitable (we are all fallible in the end) but when, like Cars, it does so to the point of eliciting I-couldn't-care-less responses from its audience, Pixar's discerning following ought to feel alarmed. Possibly the biggest letdown of the year. * (out of five)

RIP Paul Gleason

I was surprised to discover today (a little late) that actor Paul Gleason died back in May. The guy was just something else as Principal Richard Vernon in The Breakfast Club.

Paul Gleason. 4 May 1939 - 27 May 2006.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The greatest vampire film ever made

There is one vampire film to which I return time and again and find new things to appreciate each time. This is Terence Fisher's Dracula (1958, aka Horror of Dracula), Hammer Studios' first foray into the Dracula myth. And it is a fabulous film in every way.

Universal's 1931 film became a legend solely on the basis of its star, Bela Lugosi. It is a beloved classic because Lugosi was unforgettable in the title role - but as a film, the final two thirds are pedestrian after a haunting, deftly crafted first third. With Hammer's version, however, every element works, and the brilliance is sustained until the very end.

The Hammer film opens with the foreboding image of a stone eagle mounted on a pillar of Castle Dracula. James Bernard's pounding main theme adds to the sense of dreadful anticipation as the camera descends past the castle entrance and into Dracula's crypt, where blood splashes onto the tomb of the eponymous vampire.

It is hard, 50 years on, to appreciate the freshness of Hammer's vision. For one thing, this was the first time Dracula had been seen in colour. But Fisher admitted he had not gone to the 1931 film for inspiration, and yet the image of Lugosi had dominated the public's conception of Dracula for almost three decades. Imagine, then, the sense of unease when Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen) steps not into a dank, cobwebbed, haunted castle, but into the palatial, almost exotic surrounds of Hammer's castle, designed by Bernard Robinson. (His designs for the castle were so radical, Hammer considered firing him; fortunately, he went on to work with the studio for another fifteen years.)

The first section of the film, in which Harker arrives at Dracula's castle, is full of surprises which are perhaps lost on modern audiences, or at least on those who (like myself) have watched the movie dozens of times. One of the earliest is the arrival of Dracula himself. Like Lugosi, Christopher Lee arrives sinisterly at the top of a staircase (with jarring cymbal clash), but we are disarmed after the initial shiver of fright. He descends the staircase swiftly and steps into the light, where he welcomes Harker courteously and with charm. He is not Lugosi's strange and dusty creature, but a young, dashingly handsome host.

The next surprise is when Harker writes in his diary, and reveals that he is already fully aware of the truth about Dracula, and is on a mission to destroy him and "forever end his reign of terror". There follows the scene in which Harker ventures into the library, where a young girl begs him to save her from the clutches of the Count. In one of the film's most terrifyingly fantastic images, Dracula appears in the doorway, his mouth dripping with blood, and instantly these two formerly elegant creatures become feral monsters, hissing and encircling each other like animals fighting each other for their lives.

By the end of the first third of the film, we have been introduced to two of the film's greatest assets: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who now makes his arrival as Van Helsing. This was not their first pairing; they were co-stars in the previous year's The Curse of Frankenstein, but this was the film that was truly to make Lee's name.

The rest of the film is awash with more fabulous and mesmerizing imagery, thanks largely to the lighting and camerawork of Jack Asher, and Bernard Robinson's designs. Over the course of the next hour we will witness Dracula's mysterious and sensual appearance amid swirling autumn leaves outside the bedroom of his female victim; we will watch him cross the castle moat, his cape flowing majestically behind him; we will watch him ascend the staircase toward the camera, and we will watch as he seduces his victim with kisses before disappearing out of view to feed on her flesh.

At the end of the film, we will see the most enduring images of all, as Count Dracula meets his demise in rays of morning sun. Here Lee's performance not only captures Dracula's demonic rage, but evokes a certain pathos, with an unforgettable sadness in his eyes as his last breaths leave his rapidly decaying body. It was not often Lee was given the chance to give a performance of this magnitude.

And it was perhaps never again that Hammer would combine all the elements of a production - script, acting, direction, music, camerawork, design - so perfectly. The Devil Rides Out (1968) might come close. And I cannot think of a film before or since that brings the imagery of vampirism to the screen with such mastery.

Criterion artwork wallpapers

Came across a neat website criteriondungeon that features the artwork from many Criterion titles (it's a work in progress and more artwork will be added in the future) available for download as wallpapers in 1280x1024 resolution and thought I'd share with this with you as Criterion produced some great covers in the past.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Grand Canyon (Lawrence Kasdan, 1991)

Life is an unpredictable adventure in which our own wills are just one of one of many forces conspiring to shape us and steer our course. Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon is a beautifully crafted celebration of the process.

Released in 1991, the film most definitely bears the hallmarks of its era, especially in James Newton Howard's distinctly eighties, but surprisingly catchy score. The story interweaves several smaller narratives of lives converging in modern LA, in a way that prefigures the more complex Magnolia (PT Anderson, 1999) - but then, by the time Magnolia was made, didn't everything have to be cleverer and more sophisticated? Not to put down Magnolia, a film I love; but Grand Canyon is from an earlier period when narratives were simpler.

The movie opens at a basketball game, an ironic setting in which the coming together of black athletes with white spectators belies the racial divisions that exist on the streets outside. On the way home, Mack (Kevin Kline) takes a short cut through a run-down neighbourhood rather than battle traffic. Predictably (this is where Howard's score falls down), his car stalls, and he finds himself stuck in hostile streets waiting for a tow-truck. Owner of the truck is Simon (Danny Glover), who arrives just in time to save Mack from a gun-wielding teenage gang. This meeting is the first of a trail of coincidences that propel the characters' lives: Mack's friend, Davis (Steve Martin), a director of violent Hollywood movies, is robbed at gunpoint and shot in the leg; Mack's wife, Claire (Mary McDonnell), finds an abandoned baby while out jogging.

Mack and Simon strike up an unlikely friendship when Mack insists on going back to find Simon and thank him. These two performances are the finest of the film, although it must be said this is an ensemble effort, in which there really is no weak link.

The Grand Canyon is a double metaphor for the characters' formation and for the gulf of race and class that separates the two main characters, although it is the former element that Kasdan presses. Does he push it too hard? I don't know. If it was heavyhanded, I was willing to overlook it, for in every other respect I felt this was such a heartfelt, moving picture, put together with much love and care and personal attention. Kasdan isn't a slave to realism, and freely delves into fantasy at some points, a sensibility that I enjoyed.

My rating? * * * * * (4/5)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005)

62 year old widower Dante Remus Lazarescu is estranged from his closest relatives and living a solitary life with his cats in a somewhat rundown flat in Bucharest. For days, Lazarescu has been suffering from nausea and headache which he believes stems from the ulcer surgery he had years ago. His neighbours, whom he asks for painkillers, call the ambulance after he begins spitting blood with his vomit, and the visting nurse diagnoses his condition as critical. But their drive to the nearest hospital is only the beginning of a night-long journey in which overtaxed hospital staff refusing to take responsibility send them from one clinic to the next while Lazarescu's condition deteriorates.

While I was reflecting on the film after the screening, a quote from Edgar Allan Poe's short story William Wilson came to mind: "I long, in passing through the dim valley, for the sympathy- I had nearly said for the pity - of my fellow men". To me, it sums up what The Death of Mr Lazarescu is about: the frailty of human life, the lack of compassion in others, and the desire to preserve your dignity and to cling on to your life even as debilitating illness takes hold of your body and mind. It's a film in which there is little drama as we define it in a Hollywood picture; it's instead the waiting for something to happen that becomes the point of the film. It is therefore entirely intentional and appropriate that we should share and sympathise with Mr Lazarescu's agitation and that the film's growing suspense comes from our realisation that, as the old man's condition keeps deteriorating, things have reached a stalemate and nobody seems wanting to help. This pattern is established right from the start when, having ignored Lazaresu before, the hospital dispatches a paramedic only after his neighbours make the call. The film reinforces it when Lazarescu has to face the same questions and go through the same tests several times over; nearly all the nurses and doctors he sees dismissively attribute Lazarescu's condition to his drinking and smoking and only reluctantly agree to further tests and, eventually, surgery.

The mood is one of increasing desperation and helplessness, which is accentuated by the camera work: shot on digital video with handheld camera and natural lighting, it not only gives us a sense of documentary-style like immediacy but also positions the audience as a by-stander who can only look on. Puiu's film is deeply disturbing and grimly funny: laying bare the indignities that patients have to suffer at the hand of uncaring staff (even allowing for the mitigating circumstances of the casaulties caused by the bus accident, some doctors still come across as arrogant and condescending), the film is an indictment of an overtaxed health care system which, given the state of the NHS, is bound to resonate with audiences here at home. The sense of deja vu and the absurdity of Lazaresu's situation becomes so strong that disbelief and gallows humour become the only possible responses. The Death of Mr Lazaresu is a harrowing, moving film that lingers in the mind and compels us to contemplate what it means to be human, and to be compassionate to those around us. **** (out of five)

In Memoriam

RIP Jack Warden, 1921-2006.

And earlier this month, Red Buttons, 1919-2006.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

James Bond Ultimate Edition Set reviewed on DVDTimes

Wanted to draw your attention to the DVDTimes reviews of Sony/MGM's upcoming James Bond Ultimate Edition Boxset that includes all 20 Bonds films in restored picture, remastered sound and (in some cases) new extra material. The Connery/Dalton and Brosnan films have all gotten a review already as have the Moore films Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me, and The Man With The Golden Gun. The reviews are very comprehensive and a good read. You can find them all on DVDTimes, but here are links to Dr No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), The Living Daylights (1987) and Goldeneye (1995).

Update: New Astaire/Rogers Vol 2 set (R1) in October (artwork added)

Now updated with artwork: Warner continue with their great work releasing classic musicals on DVD: anyone who bought Warner's excellent Astaire/Rogers Vol 1 Set last year will be pleased to hear that a second set with Carefree and The Gay Divorcee among the later Astaire/Rogers films is scheduled for R1 release on the 17th of October - you can read more in detail here. Warner are also going to release a 12-disc set (replete with press book reproductions and a soundtrack CD) that contains all 10 films that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did together, and owners of the first volume will have the opportunity to upgrade to that set at a special price.

There are two box sets available in Region 2 from Universal but two of the ten films are missing and there are no extras at all; we also suspect that unlike the Warner collections the films have not received any restoration.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Criterion's October line-up

Criterion have announced their titles for October, including two debuts: Jane Campion's Sweetie (1989), the schizophrenia drama Clean, Shaven by Lodge Kerrigan (1994), the Italian film Hands over the City with Rod Steiger (1963) and Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's satire Solo Con Tu Pareja (1991) which was lensed by Emmanuel Lubezki (responsible for the beautiful cinematography in Terence Malick's The New World).

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Superman Returns (2006)

Warning: the plot synopsis contains minor spoilers

Superman Returns has had a long and troubled gestation and production history but you wouldn't guess it from the finished film which is stylish and and involving. If, like Batman Begins and Hulk, it didn't strain too hard for respectability, it'd have been a great film.

After spending five years in vain searching for his home planet Krypton, Superman returns to Earth to the Smallville farm where he was brought up, and, in the guise of reporter Clark Kent, takes up his old job at the Daily Planet broadsheet where his former love Lois Lane is still working. Lane has turned on Superman since he left her at the end of the second film, and is now engaged to editor Richard White as well as looking after her young son Jason. Meanwhile, Superman's arch enemy Lex Luthor has been released from jail. Kitty Kowalski and his gang in tow, he searches for and finds Superman's Fortress of Solitude from which he steals a crystal he plans to use to create a new continent in the likeness of Krypton, and to rule the world.

Would that that more of the studios' output was made with the same care and attention like Superman Returns, and as emotionally engaging as Bryan Singer's film: intended, like Batman Begins last year, to reinvigorate an ailing franchise, Superman Returns has clearly been a labour of love for its makers (it's a respectful and thankfully not overdone homage to the 1978 film, nods including the use of John Williams' title theme and left-over footage of Marlon Brando and it's dedicated to Christopher and Diana Reeve). I have yet to see a major Hollywood fim this year that looks as ravishing as this, and that has been as thoughtfully and caringly realised as Singer's take on the Man of Steel. There is graceful and often stunning camera work by DoP Newton Thomas Sigel and John Ottman makes strong contributions in his dual position as the pic's editor and score composer while the (few) action scenes are well-choreographed with a proper sense of spatial awareness and pack a real punch. That ought to be a given really but in a season where the competition (say, MI:3 and X-Men 3) failed on both counts, it's all the more worth stressing that a summer release finally does deliver the goods. Singer's focus on character development for much of the film's length gives the big setpieces strong emotional resonance: you care enough about the characters that the heavy-handed Christian allegory in some scenes (Superman as the saviour of mankind) and the complete lack of spark in the romance between Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth doesn't derail the film. Speaking of Bosworth, she is the only cast member who failed to convince me: she is conceivably too young to be such an established journalist as the script wants us to believe she is (coincidentally, one of the script's few incongruities has to do with her winning a Pulitzer Prize for her piece "Why the world doesn't need Superman" - er, come again?) and she doesn't have enough rapport with Routh. Routh, in contrast, is very good: not only does he bear a strong resemblance to Christopher Reeve, he also carries the part effortlessly and is equally convincing as Clark Kent and Superman (which Christian Bale somewhat surprisingly didn't quite manage in Batman Begins). I enjoyed Parker Posey as Luthor's comic relief sidekick Kitty Kowalski, and Kevin Spacey intentionally (as he told the BBC) and very effectively turns Luthor into a far more sinister villain than Gene Hackman did in 1978. And yet, the film didn't win me over entirely: the romance doesn't work, and the film gets bogged down by the austerity and sobriety of its weightier moments; Singer is capable of a lighter touch (just think of that neat little moment in X2 when the cat licks Wolverine's claws) that a comic adaptation also needs but there is not enough of it in Superman Returns to offset the too laboured religious overtones. Which is to say that the film is made with great confidence and craftsmanship, and it engages the heart but it just isn't as much fun as it ought to have been. *** (out of five)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

DVD (Region 1): classic horror films for the autumn (now updated with menus and extra line-up)

Update: Universal have now released menu shots of their new Dracula and Frankenstein releases and announced the bonus material.

Warner, Universal and Paramount have announced their line-up of classic horror films for the autumn: Universal will be releasing Browning's Dracula (1931) and Whale's original Frankenstein (1933) in a new Anniversary Edition on the 26th of September, while Paramount have prepared Special Editions of the Stephen King adaptations The Dead Zone and Pet Cemetery for the same street date.

More news on Warner's line-up as we have it..

Speaking of Universal: the studio is sadly continuing with its practice of selling its big titles on lesser Region 2 discs than the US/Canadian R1 originals. Spike Lee's Inside Man arrives a week earlier on Region 2 (31/07) but with no extras at all whereas the R1 comes with a director's commentary, deleted scenes and two featurettes. This is all the more regrettable as Inside Man is one of the year's genuinely worthwhile Hollywood mainstream films and deserving better than such a barebones release on R2.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Jean-Pierre Leaud & Kim Novak

I put together a couple videos of two great stars. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Paul Schrader on Taxi Driver

Wanted to draw your attention to this piece in today's Guardian in which Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver (1976), talks about the Scorsese/DeNiro classic (which is about to re-released next week) and his own experiences on the film. It's a worthwhile read.