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Friday, March 25, 2011

AFI/BFI #209: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Spike Lee

AFI Rank:  - (1998) 96 (2007)
BFI Rank: -


In terms of critical acclaim it is hard to argue with the facts. As well as occupying position 96 on the AFI Top 100 10th Anniversary list, it holds places on Variety's 50 best of all time, Entertainment Weekly's 100 Greatest Movies Of All Time, Film Four's 100 Greatest Films Of All Time, The National Society Of Film Critics 100 Essential Films, Empire's 500 Greatest Movies Of All Time and the list goes on. Siskel and Ebert ranked it as one of the top 10 films of the decade. The US Library of Congress even chose it for preservation in the National Film Registry. You might be surprised then to learn that I didn't particularly enjoy it.

Do The Right Thing is unquestionably an important movie. It delivers its message unbelievably well, a difficult thing to do if you consider not only the subject but the time it was made. For that alone it deserves the acclaim. The writing and reciting by Lee are both superb. The cast stellar (John Turturro, Danny Aiello and Ossie Davis especially). Similar to many british movies on the BFI list, it is culturally and historically significant. It perfectly captures not only a time and place but also the emotions and sentiments. Don't get me wrong. This is not uncomfortable to watch like many other movies of this genre. As a viewer I just felt like I was along for the ride and never truly got pulled in by the characters or the story. Many of the most interesting characters are played by veteran actors and that may point to my problem with the film. Many of the fresh young actors would go on to do incredible things but here it feels like they are just warming up. For me at least it was enough to keep me from getting completely engaged.

I watched both the DVD and also parts of the Netflix HD stream. The DVD retains the overly saturated and yellow tinged cinematography of the original film which adds to the sense of oppressive heat. The Blu ray has apparently lost this in favor of crisp lifelike color and the Netflix stream did seem a little less yellow to me. Take your pick.

Should you see it? Absolutely. There is a key question posed that is central to the film and, without spoiling the plot, is incredibly powerful. It will linger with you for a while. Certainly less than it would have 20 years ago, but critical all the same. For me personally I think that with repeated viewing I might come to love this movie, not having gone in with any nostalgic memories of seeing it in the nineties.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

AFI/BFI #210: The Wicker Man (1973)

Director: Robin Hardy
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, Christopher Lee, David Pinner
Composer: Gary Carpenter. Paul Giovanni, Magnet
AFI Rank:  -
BFI Rank: 96


By the early seventies Christopher Lee had made a name for himself as a horror actor and a Hammer regular. Looking to expand beyond this Lee worked with Anthony Shaffer (Frenzy, Sleuth, Death On The Nile) on an adaptation of David Pinner's novel Ritual, very little of which made it into the final screenplay. The result is one of the greatest british films ever made and Christopher Lee's personal favorite. He even worked without pay to help get it made. I hesitate to call it a horror movie as at times it is more thriller than traditional horror. However you classify it there are moments of real terror even today. As with many great films it was not recognized as such till much later. At the time it was cut to shreds and played as the B movie for Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Know. I won't go into all the details of the various versions of this film, there is plenty of that out there. They key thing is that you need to get your hands on the Extended or Director's editions which are 96 minutes long versus the originally butchered 88 minutes. That may seem like a small difference, and it is in terms of time, but the shorter version is also reordered and the combination has a dramatic effect on the films narrative and impact.

The film was directed by Robin Hardy who had previously made US and Canadian television dramas for such companies as the Esso World Theatre and had returned to London in the sixties to make commercials and informational films for the Hardy Shaffer Ferguson Avery company. It was this partnership with Anthony Shaffer that brought him onto The Wicker Man along with Lee. It was his first and best feature film and he made only a handful afterwards, focusing mostly on his writing. He has long planned to make a sequel/prequel/related film with Lee based on his novel Cowboys For Christ and it may see the light of day in the coming year. He even makes a brief cameo in The Wicker Man as the minister.

Stranger in a strange land, Sergeant Howie (Woodward)
Edward Woodward is pitch perfect as Sergeant Howie and we can be thankful that both Michael York and David Hemmings were not cast. Apparently Woodward was always the producer's and writer's first choice.

In terms of awards there is very little to talk about as you would expect. Just four nominations and one win from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films in 1979. It's critical acclaim would come later as it started to show up regularly on best picture and top 100 film lists. It sits at 96 on the BFI list.

I was lucky enough to catch the longer version in HD on cable. There is no Blu ray as of yet. It looked superb and if you can catch it this way I highly recommend it until the Blu ray is out. The shorter version is by no means awful if that is all you can track down.

I won't go into the plot. As you should know by now I think the only way to see a film is when you know nothing about it. The point of reviews and trailers are to convince you it is worth seeing and won't be a waste of your precious time. Let me save you that. The Wicker Man is unquestionably Crucial Cinema.


Monday, March 21, 2011

AFI/BFI #211: Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples, Philip K. Dick
Composer: Vangelis
AFI Rank:  - (1998) 97 (2007)
BFI Rank: -


You don't get many critically acclaimed science fiction movies. The "serious" critics and awards committees have always tended to look down on them or be fearful of treating them as serious cinema, maybe concerned that they will not stand the test of time and in hindsight their praise and accompanying overlooking of other more serious films will be questioned. In fact the opposite is what tends to happen and viewers are left scratching their heads as to why their beloved scifi movies lost out to some now forgotten drama. Blade Runner, like similar movies, got oscar nominations for visual effects and art direction but won neither. Tootsie got a Best Picture nomination that same year for heavens sake. Thank god it went to Gandhi which is at least harder to argue with.

Like so many other films of this genre Blade Runner has faired much better with the critics in the subsequent years:

  • 4th best film of all time by Moviemail (2000)
  • 2nd best film ever made by BBC viewers (2000)
  • 16th best film of all time and by Empire magazine (2001)
  • 8th in Channel 4's 100 Greatest Films poll (2002)
  • 2nd best science fiction film by the Online Film Critics Society (2002)
  • 1st best science fiction film of all time by Wired Magazine (2002)
  • 7th best film of the last 25 years by Sight & Sound Magazine (2002)
  • 2nd most visually influential film of all time by the Visual Effects Society (2007)

Now to be fair what everyone was rating and critiquing at the time was the appalling US theatrical version of the film. I have seen Blade Runner many, many times. I had recently watched the Final Cut and Work-print on Blu ray, the former being absolutely stunning and the only way to see this movie now. Knowing all of this I decided for this viewing to force myself to watch the one version I had never actually seen, the aforementioned US Theatrical release from 1982. I know it has its lovers but I am really not sure why. The voiceover alone is enough to destroy this for me. My movie hot button is anything that treats the viewer as either an idiot, or as if you have not been paying attention. Flashbacks to earlier in a film are usually the worst offender but here we have a voiceover that does not simply add to the story, exposing otherwise unheard thoughts, but instead explains everything that is happening in case you are a few sandwiches short of a picnic. The producers should have never been allowed to work again and we are lucky to have a version today that has their post workprint touches removed.

Nicknamed Blood Runner by the crew, the production itself was difficult with on set differences and friction. It is interesting that the british Scott found it difficult working with the US crew, complaining that with a UK crew he would ask for something and just get it. James Cameron would go on to direct the sequel to Scott's Alien four years later in England and have similar problems with his UK crew, complaining that they didn't work hard enough and took too many tea breaks. Even in 1982 England and America were still two countries separated by a common language. 

The film has not suffered with age at all. Some of the tweaks for the Final Cut have certainly helped but even without them this is one of the most convincing worlds ever visited on celluloid. Scott famously paid almost insane attention to the details and it shows. You never question the sets, they never feel like sets. The original concept was a merged San Angeles which was dropped but would later be the setting for Demolition Man (coincidentally or not David L. Snyder was Art Director on both). Production Designer Lawrence G. Paul would latter work on Back To The Future and Escape From L.A. Linda DeScenna's set decoration earned her an Oscar alongside Paul and Snyder and she would later work on some of my favorite movies of all time including The Goonies, Back To The Future II and The Rocketeer. Special Effects technicians Greg Curtis and Logan Frazee would later work on the Star Trek Next Generation pictures, and the legendary Douglas Trumbull took home an Oscar along with Richard Yuricich (2001, Silent Running, Star Trek) and David Dryer (Never Say Never Again). This is all old school special effects done incredibly well. Watching many of the current CGI heavy movies I wonder if we are in or just coming out of that same period decades ago that left us with some pretty ropey stop motion based pictures. Will these current movies age just as badly? Careful use of special effects, whatever the technology, has always been the key to longevity in a picture. That is why classics such as King Kong are still just as watchable today. Some would argue that the soundtrack has not fared so well. Usually orchestral scores tend to age far better than synth laden ones but in this case I tend to disagree. Vangelis' score is superb and also carefully done so that, just like the effects, it has become more iconic than archaic. 

The other star of the show is the cast with many of them having key input into the final picture. Harrison Ford had just come off of Empire and Raiders. What an incredible time for cinema and for Ford. Rutger Hauer is astonishingly good and contributed to key scenes especially the finale. Add to that a set of perfectly cast actors in every key role: Brion James, Daryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh, Edward James Olmos (the street speak was his idea), Joe Turkel, Joanna Cassidy, James Hong and William Sanderson. Like many I always thought that Mr Holden in that opening scene was played by the usually unbearable James Remar but apparently not. It was actually Morgan Paull. Explains why the scene is so good.

You cannot talk about Blade Runner without a tip of the hat to the prolific Philip K. Dick. Many of the greatest science fiction films ever made have been based on his books and short stories. Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly and The Adjustment Bureau. He was the modern day H.G. Wells and his legacy will be the basis for many more films for years to come. I would recommend taking a look at this list of just 10 great Philip K. Dick stories that have yet to be brought to film. As with any big project the screenplay adaption passed through many hands, the last of which was David Webb Peoples who would later pen the superb Twelve Monkeys, also an adaption but based on the 1962 short movie
La Jetee.

If you have never seen Blade Runner then you must. If you have only seen the theatrical release then you still have not really seen Blade Runner. Either way, this is without question Crucial Cinema.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

AFI/BFI #212: Nil By Mouth (1997)

Director: Gary Oldman
Writer: Gary Oldman
Composer: Eric Clapton
AFI Rank:  -
BFI Rank: 97


Try and remember the happiest day of your life. That day that was utterly perfect, that every time you think of it brings a smile to your face. Maybe it was and event like the birth of a child or your wedding day, or lying on a beach in Bali watching the sunset, or the day you won the lottery, or… well you get the picture. Now hold that memory until you are just as happy as that moment. Done? OK, now you are ready to watch Nil By Mouth, because trust me, if you watch it at any other time you risk descending into a seriously deep depression that you will possibly need medication to escape from. Ok, I exaggerate, but this is an unbelievably harrowing film. To call it entertainment would be misleading.

The film was Gary Oldman's debut as both a writer and director, although he has yet to follow it up. And what a debut it is. Fittingly for a film centered around family, it is based loosely on Oldman's own childhood in London and dedicated to his father. His sister, Laila Morse, made her screen debut although you wouldn't guess it. Her stage name being an anagram of the italian for My Sister, Mia Sorella. Their mother even provides the vocals for the grandmother's song at the end of the film.

There is very little story here and the script focuses more on capturing the painful realism of a family being torn apart from within in slow and uncomfortable detail. If you are easily offended by language then steer clear as that realism requires more profanity per inch of celluloid than any other non-documentary film in history. The F-word is used 522 times, thats over 4 times a minute. The C-word a mere 82.

The film was produced by Luc Besson who had worked with Oldman on Leon (The Professional) and The Fifth Element. Oldman had likely met experienced Ron Fortunato's cinematography on Basquait and brought him on board. His work here is exquisite. Combined with the intimate hand held camera work and Brad Fuller's documentary style editing, the result is frighteningly real without lapsing into that pseudo-documentary style that would have diminished its impact.

Charlie Creed-Miles, Jamie Foreman and Ray Winstone

The real stars of the film are Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke. Coming onto Nil By Mouth most of their experience had been on television. Oldman gives them great material and they use it to act one another off the screen at every opportunity. Ray was nominated for a BAFTA and won a British Independent Film Award for his portrayal of Ray. He is frightening, angry, vulnerable and everything in between. Kathy Burke as Valerie gives the performance of her career and similarly got a BAFTA nomination and British Independent Film Award win.

I watched the 2003 US DVD release which is enhanced  for 16:9 rather than the original theatrical 1.66:1. The transfer is beautiful. No sign of a blu-ray release yet but I am not convinced it would benefit much more from it.

The film was still very fresh when the BFI list was made and I do wonder if it would still make the Top 100 today. Depending on your point of view it has either become much more or much less relevant in the last decade. As the BFI list suggests, we british seem to enjoy these gritty realistic working class dramas more than in other parts of the world. Certainly this would never have been made in hollywood and perhaps that alone earns it's place on the list.  It is extremely hard to watch, but I recommend it if only for Ray and Kathy's performances. Make sure you watch it all. Quit too soon and you will wonder what on earth it was all about. Maybe even watch it twice. So find your happy place and pop in the DVD.


Monday, March 7, 2011

AFI/BFI #213: Small Faces (1996)

Director: Gillies MacKinnon
Writer: Billy MacKinnon, Gillies MacKinnon
John Keane: composer_name
AFI Rank:  -
BFI Rank: 98


Released the same year as Trainspotting the comparisons are only natural, but the films could not be more different. Both were still fresh when the BFI compiled their list in 1999. Trainspotting did not make the BFI Top 100 yet there at #98 is Small Faces. I had really looked forward to seeing this particular movie in the list. It fulfilled all the criteria. I had never seen or even heard of it, it had an excellent cast and a promising story. Maybe my expectations were too high going in.

Iain Robertson steals the show as youngest brother Lex
I was to be honest a little disappointed with Small Faces. There are certainly moments of brilliance and some incredible visual moments such as the streak of blood across the ice rink. The story is certainly intriguing. A coming of age story, a subject that british cinema has done so well with through the decades, combined with a gritty look at Glasgow in the sixties. I have fond memories of Ken Loach's Kess (also on the BFI list) and was expecting something similar here. And perhaps it is there. Had I watched this on its release in 1996 then perhaps it would benefit from a small tinge of nostalgia today.

Without ruining too much of the plot, for me this is very much a parallel of the Judas story. That central element is strong but gets lost in a series of unnecessary excursions that while adding to the realism also manage to diminish the film's overall coherence.

The film notched up a surprisingly slim list of awards until you remember it shared the spotlight with the more commercial Trainspotting. A win at both the Edinburgh and Rotterdam international film festivals and a nomination for a Scottish BAFTA. Trainspotting won the BAFTA. Interestingly the BFI Top 100 is populated by another couple of films from this same awards year namely The English Patient and Secrets & Lies. The worldwide competition included Fargo, Shine, Jerry Maguire, Sling Blade, Hamlet, Michael Collins, Romeo + Juliet, Twister, That Thing You Do, James and the Giant Peach, Evita, and The People vs Larry Flynt. Not a bad year at all for film lovers.

For a movie on the BFI top 100 it is surprisingly hard to get a hold of a copy. It has not had a US DVD release and no UK blu-ray release either. Am I glad I saw it? Absolutely. Should you go out of your way to track down a copy? Probably not.