Thursday, 4 December 2014

Thoughts on the Bond 24 Announcement

It was an exciting day for James Bond fans as the title, cast, and synopsis for the 24th Bond film was announced. The title will be Spectre, which I found the most exciting piece of info gained from the announcements. Calling the new film Spectre is the Bond movie equivalent of the next Captain America film being labelled Civil War. Even without seeing a trailer, fans know to be excited.

For those not acquainted with the Bond mythos, SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) was the shadowy terrorist organization that was a consistent presence in the early Sean Connery Bond films (and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with one-timer George Lazenby).  But the Bond films were not able to use SPECTRE and its bald leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld (the inspiration for Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies) for several decades. This was due to producer/director Kevin McClory (who died in 2006) and his estate owning the film rights to the organization and character of Blofeld. In the late 1950s McClory worked with Fleming on a screenplay for a James Bond film. This was several years before the first James Bond film- Dr. No- in 1962. When that project fell through Fleming turned the screenplay in to the novel Thunderball. McClory was not credited. This is what led to the legal troubles. In November of last year MGM and McClory’s estate came to an agreement and now the Bond films are free to use SPECTRE and Blofeld.

Here is the official synopsis for the film:  A cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organisation. While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind SPECTRE.

The big question I have is what does this mean for Quantum, the organization that was behind the scenes in Casino Royale (the first Daniel Craig Bond film) and was the focus of its sequel, Quantum of Solace? I’ve theorized for several years that Quantum was this continuity’s version of SPECTRE. But if Spectre refers to the literal organization from the original films does that mean Quantum is just an offshoot of SPECTRE? I think there’s a good chance that’s the direction the film (and series) is headed. I know Quantum of Solace is not one of the most beloved Bond films but I don’t think the film can be ignored, particularly when its events are so closely linked with that of Casino Royale, a film most fans want to keep canon. And if Quantum is just one arm of SPECTRE, then it makes the loose ends regarding Quantum at the end of Quantum of Solace work a little bit better. Quantum isn't the big picture like we thought. There’s something- and someone- even bigger behind them.   

Another question on people’s minds- is Christoph Waltz playing Blofeld? The Oscar winning actor was rumoured to be playing a villainous role in the film and this it was confirmed today. The character he will be playing is named Oberhauser. It’s been pointed out that Oberhauser was the name of a character from the literary James Bond. Hans Oberhauser was Bond’s ski instructor and surrogate father after the death of his parents. Waltz is reportedly playing Franz Oberhauser, Hans' son, which would give the battle between Bond and Waltz’s character a more personal edge. Though many believe Oberhauser will just be a cover name for Waltz’s character- and he’ll eventually be revealed as Blofeld.

We’ve been through this song and dance several times with Hollywood blockbusters, most notoriously with Star Trek Into Darkness. Benedict Cumberbatch was said to be playing a villain named “John Harrison.” This character was in fact Khan Noonien Singh, arguably the most iconic Star Trek villain. Marion Cotillard was supposedly playing “Miranda Tate” in Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. Miranda was Talia Al Ghul, the daughter of Ra's Al Ghul, in disguise.  This sort of misdirection usually backfires because audiences- and fans- are so speculative.  Also the internet makes it easier to discover spoilers.

Some are speculating that Waltz is just a red herring and fellow new cast member Andrew Scott (James Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock), whose character is an MI6 agent named Denbigh, may be playing Blofeld. Though with all this speculation, maybe Blofeld won’t be in the movie at all. Maybe he’ll just be a spectre, a presence that will be teased for the next film, like the Joker in Batman Begins. What I love about the film’s ending is we only seeing the Joker's calling card, which is more exciting then actually seeing him.  

Most of the new cast members were rumours waiting to be confirmed. Waltz and Scott I already mentioned. Professional wrestler Dave Bautista playing a henchman named Mr. Hinx. Bautista was a standout in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy. He has natural charisma so I hope this role doesn't waste him. Lea Seydoux, who played a femme fatale role in the last Mission Impossible, will be playing the new Bond woman Madeline Swan. Seydoux is one of those actresses who epitomizes the glamour and exoticness of the Bond woman. I think she’ll be great. I believe Monica Bellucci will be playing the secondary Bond woman, named Lucia Sciarra. Bellucci just turned 50 in September, making her the oldest actress to play a Bond woman, which I think is awesome.

Craig returns for his fourth appearance as the iconic secret agent. Ralph Fiennes will be playing Bond's superior, M. This will be the first Bond film in 10 years not to feature Judi Dench as M. M. Dench’s M died at the end of the previous film, Skyfall, being replaced by Fiennes’ Gareth Mallory. Ben Whishaw as Q, Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny, and Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner also reprise their roles.

Skyfall director Sam Mendes returns to the director’s chair. Skyfall- while not my absolute favourite Bond film- is probably the best directed film in the franchise so I have no problem with Mendes directing another Bond film. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot Skyfall and provided gorgeous imagery for the film, won’t be returning. Hoyte van Hoytema will be the cinematographer for Spectre.  Hoytema has shot Spike Jonze’s Her, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, David O. Russell’s The Fighter, Let the Right One In and Christopher Nolan’s latest, Interstellar. Judging by his previous work, I’m confident his work on this film will be stellar.

Thomas Newman wrote the score for Skyfall and he’ll return to score this film. There’s no confirmation on who will sing the theme song, though rumours say it’s going to be Sam Smith. John Logan and long time Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade wrote the screenplay. Logan also wrote Skyfall with Purvis and Wade.    

Spectre will begin shooting next week and will be released on November 6, 2015. As always, James Bond has returned.

PS. The teaser poster for the film is an homage to the classic Spectre logo:

Thursday, 13 November 2014

For Noirvember: "Time is luck:" Some Thoughts on Michael Mann's "Miami Vice"

Spoilers Ahead

When Michael Mann's Miami Vice- based on the 1984-89 series he executive produced- was released in 2006, the reaction from audiences and critics was mixed. It's not too surprising that the film didn't completely hit off with audiences or critics. For one, The film doesn't satisfy genre expectations of a crime thriller. There's not a lot of action, the story is slow paced in many sections, Farrell and Foxx trade nary a one liner, and most of the characters come across as flat and uninteresting. But since its release, the film has been embraced by critics and toted as a masterpiece. I'm not quite prepared to give the film that label; but I do feel the film is a beautiful and singular work that only could've been directed by Michael Mann.

I think Mann used the title so he could then subvert audiences' expectations of what a big screen Miami Vice remake would look and feel like. While it does borrow elements from the series, this is not a homage to the show. There are no cheeky references and it's not interested in being meta like the 21 Jump Street films that came later. Mann and his actors play things straight. Mann uses digital photography (As he did with 2004's Collateral and 2009's Public Enemies) to create a real world atmosphere and puts us in the midst of the action throughout the entire film. The movie exists between the real and the romanticized, resulting in something truly sublime. Instead of a throwback to the style of the 80s, Mann forges a visual landscape that's thoroughly modern but also transcends its era and becomes timeless.

If haven't seen the film yet then try to get your hands on the theatrical cut. In North America, the director's cut is the only version of the film available. The director's cut begins with a prologue that sets the stage for a prostitution ring bust by Miami police officers Sonny Crockett (Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Foxx). This set-up takes away from the theatrical cut's opening, in which we're shoved right in to the night club, where the bust is to happen, music blaring, the camera giving us close-ups of our main players.

Sonny and Rico soon become involved in a undercover operation to take down a drug cartel. They meet up with Jose Yero (John Ortiz), the second in command to the cartel's leader, Archangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar).  Montoya's financial adviser and lover is Isabella (Gong Li), with whom Sonny becomes romantically involved.

After seeing the film three times, I still couldn't tell you every aspect of the plot. But with many noir and noir-inspired films, I don't think the plot is what really matters. Mann uses the plot to further create a feeling of authenticity. When characters on screen about what's going on, we feel we're getting a first hand view at the way these kinds of operations go down. What really matters to Mann is the existential dilemmas for the characters, which I find is also the most noir aspect of the film. As Sonny and Isabella begin their love affair, they're both very conscious it has no future. Again, this is a very noir-like sentiment. Noir characters exist in a fatalistic world where there's usually only one outcome, and it's usually tragic.

Ricardo and fellow police officer Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris) are also in a romantic relationship. While their relationship has a more optimistic future, Trudy is kidnapped by the Aryan Brotherhood who is working with Montoya's cartel. Trudy is rescued but then nearly killed by a bomb detonated by Yero. This incident makes real to Rico the fact this job can get Trudy killed. Rico tells Sonny: You know what gets me. The prospect of her losing her life over this bullshit line of work."  When Sonny asks if that's what Trudy thinks, Rico says "No, it's what I think." It's a nice character moment for Rico, showing his vulnerability but his anger in the face of violence.


While the characters in Miami Vice seem at first glance to be a little flat, after a few viewings they become more textured and interesting than on an initial viewing. The aforementioned scene is an important one in showing the warmth and openness between Crockett and Tubbs. Then there's the scene between the two before the final shootout which Rico asks if Sonny is ready for his relationship with Isabella to end. Sonny says he's "most definitely not ready." That Sonny is able to be this honest- and like Rico earlier, vulnerable- with his partner further highlights the strength of their partnership.

Similar to the noirs of the classic studio era, Miami Vice creates a heightened language of its own. "Why do I get the feeling everyone know we're 15 blocks out?" asks Sonny as he and Rico are on their way to see Yero. "'Cause everyone knows we're 15 blocks out" replies Rico. The film's dialogue is also what helps give the characters texture. One of the best scenes in the film is the first meeting with Yero, in which Sonny and Rico have to convince Yero to use them in the cartel's operations. Sonny and Rico turn the tables on Yero, asking him if he's a cop. And Rico says to Yero: "[W]e didn't come down here to audition for business. Business auditions for us." This scene showcases the tightrope undercover cops have to walk when entering in to this kind of world and working with criminals. And the scene questions how much is this the real Sonny and Rico, and how much is just play acting.

Mann employs music to sell the emotions of the film. A major example is the use of Moby's "One of These Mornings." Mogwi's "Auto-Rock" plays over the final passages of the film and is another example of how the perfect song can enhance the emotion of what's on screen. Miami Vice has what may be one of my favourite closing shots in any film. Sonny comes back to the hospital where Trudy has just woken up from her coma. Sonny has sent Isabella away but there's still hope for Rico and Trudy. The long shot of Sonny entering the hospital is so simple but- with "Auto-Rock playing over it- so sadly beautiful. Just as how the film opened right in the midst of the story, so the story ends just as abruptly, highlighting the matter-of-factness of these people's lives. The fatalism of the story comes not from things ending, but things having to continue on almost without change- but with the memory of what could've been.  

Friday, 7 November 2014

For Noirvember- "Marx wasn't a German, Marx was a Jew:" Some thoughts on Orson Welles' "The Stranger."

Spoilers Ahead

Orson Welles' 1946 film The Stranger takes place in what is- stylistically speaking- a self-contained noirish universe. But its story and theme concern real world events: the Holocaust and Nazi war criminals who hid after the end of World War II. 

Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator from the War Crimes Commission, releases a former ally of  the fugitive Nazi Franz Kindler's (Orson Welles) named Konrad  Meinike (Konstatin Shayne) in the hope he'll lead Wilson to Kindler. Wilson follows Meinike to the town of Harper, Connecticut. Kindler has assumed the identity of Charles Rankin, a prep school teacher.  Kindler is to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale). Kindler hopes his marriage to Mary will offer his further protection against any attempts to reveal his identity.       

The Stranger reminds me of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, released three years prior to this film, in which Joseph Cotton plays a serial killer who comes to stay with his family in California. The film was about the juxtaposition of an idyllic town and the monster hiding amongst its people; the fear of evil invading America. The Stranger deals with similar themes but with more historical significance. A Nazi war criminal would be an invader and corrupter of America. But Harper in the perfect place for Kindler to hide, he tells Meinike. Who would look for a Nazi war criminal in a small Connecticut town? Kindler also creates an ideal identity: a kindly teacher who will marry in to a respected family. But Kindler only sees his life as Rankin as temporary; an interlude until there is another war and the Nazis rise again. Kindler is hiding from his past- as film noir characters often do- but he's also ready to embrace his former identity when the time comes. Kinder then kills Meinike to protect his identity.  

Wilson is more of an outsider than Kindler- who has become a intrinsic part of the community. Wilson becomes is the primary suspect, the only suspect in Meinike's murder. Wilson is posing as an antiques collector and one theory is he killed Meinike over a priceless antique. Kindler's false identity makes him part of the community, whereas Wilson's gives him a possible motive for murder. Robinson's rough features makes him feel more like an "other" than Welles' debonair looks.         

In one of the film's pivotal scenes, Wilson has dinner with Kindler and the Longstreets. There is discussion about German culture post WWII. Kindler doesn't believe the German people can be reformed post-Holocaust. Kindler says "The will to freedom has been voiced in every other tongue- ''All men are created equal," liberte, egalite, fraternite- but in German."  This leads Mary's brother Noah (Richard Long) to mention Karl Marx and his quote about the working class starting a revolution. Kindler replies that Marx wasn't German, he was a Jew. This gives Kindler away to Wilson. [W]ho but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew?" asks Wilson later. Despite Kindler's best efforts to hide his true identity, this one remark is a subtle but crucial clue to his true self.  It's the smallest thing that can reveal who we truly are.    

What The Stanger is most notable for is its use of footage of the Nazi concentration camps, a very daring scene for what was a mainstream Hollywood film. Wilson shows Mary this footage as he reveals the truth about her husband. Wilson is not only telling Mary her husband is a Nazi but is showing her the reality of who the Nazis were, illustrating something Americans had at the time only heard about. The scene isn't just about Mary's reaction but the audience's as well. Mary refuses to believe Wilson. Wilson tells Mary's father that her denial is about not wanting to believe she could ever love a monster. Mary eventually confronts her husband about his true identity. He attempts to kill her but is prevented by Wilson and Noah.

Kindler's fascination with clocks leads him to repair the timepiece in the town's clock tower, which is where the film's climax occurs. The clock tower has a claustrophobic atmosphere. This is highlighted by Wilson telling Kindler the world closed in on him, then the town, now this clock tower.

While Welles considered The Stranger to be his least favourite among his own films, it was in fact the only film of his to be a box office success upon release. It does feel more audience friendly film than some of Welles' other films, it's style- while Wellesian- is in tone with other noirs of the time. But despite being a conventional noir thriller in some ways, The Stranger is still an important and daring work in the Welles' oeuvre. It wasn't afraid to confront the subject of the Holocaust and the aftermath of the war. It blends the stylized world of film noir while injecting it with footage of the locations of actual atrocities. The Stranger is a splendidly made film which has a social significance that's still relevant today.  

Sunday, 12 October 2014

What Have We Done To Each Other? What Will We Do?: "Gone Girl"

Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead

Throughout his career David Fincher has been attracted to stories that begin as straightforward thrillers but then become something more existential and haunting. Se7en and Zodiac aren’t just police procedurals about the hunt for serial killers. Se7en explores themes of confronting a force of evil beyond human imagination and whether it’s worth fighting for good in an apathetic world. Zodiac is about the affect the Zodiac killer's crimes had on the American psyche and how the search for his identity became a self-destructive obsession for one man. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo- another film about a serial killer- is a character study of Lisbeth Salander- someone who’s a genius hacker but is socially maladjusted. And Gone Girl, Fincher’s 10th film- based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, who also penned the screenplay- starts out as a missing person/murder mystery but transforms in to a story about perception and identity- media perception, the way people in a marriage view each other and who they pretend to be. I don’t think Gone Girl reaches the heights of Zodiac but it’s an involving, expertly paced and strongly acted film. The film blends the pulp with the prestige, making it an adult drama that’s also very entertaining.

It’s difficult to explore what Gone Girl is about without divulging its central twist. So, I’ll give you the basic set up and then jump to the spoilery parts of the story. The initial premise is that on the fifth anniversary of their marriage, Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing and Nick soon becomes a suspect. Nick is not arrested and he does have the support of his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) and detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens); but he becomes guilty in the court of public opinion. A sensationalistic media personality in the style of Nancy Grace named Ellie Abbot (Missi Pyle), is also out to crucify Nick. Part of the reason why Amy’s disappearance becomes a big news story is because she was the basis for a series of children’s books written by her parents. These books are exaggerations of Amy’s own life and “Amazing Amy” succeeds whenever Amy fails.  

Okay, now I’m going to enter spoiler territory. I’ll give a little space to allow you an opportunity to leave if you haven’t seen the film yet.

Around the midpoint of the film it’s revealed that Amy is still alive. She faked her death to get revenge on Nick for his adultery. Nick was having an affair with Andie Fitzgerald (Emily Ratajkowski).  Andie is  a former student of Nick's (he lost his job after the recession). Throughout the early parts of the film- similar to the novel- we hear Amy’s narration as she writes in her diary, recounting her marriage to Nick and the supposed violence he inflicted on her one night. We then realize that the Amy we thought we knew is as much a construct as Amazing Amy. When it’s revealed that Amy is alive, we hear a monologue about the “Cool Girl” myth. A Cool Girl is someone who likes all the things a man does. But as Amy says, this Cool Girl doesn’t exist. She’s just pretending to be something she's not to win over a man. Through the character of Amy the film explores the allusiveness of identity, how carefully constructed an external identity can be. Even with Amy’s narration, we’re never explicitly told how Amy became the way she is. She’s an enigma, one that can never be solved.

It’s a difficult role to play and Pike plays it remarkably, showing us the ways in which Amy changes her identity and manipulates others, including her former boyfriend Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris). Pike has been on the edge of stardom since her turn as femme fatale Miranda Frost in Pierce Brosnan’s final James Bond film Die Another Day. She’s been a reliable supporting actress for ages but I think her performance as Amy is what will make her a major actress in the coming years. What I admire most about the performance is despite Amy’s cruelty I never disliked her. There’s almost something admirable about how methodical and cunning she is. Flynn was very bold when she constructed the Amy character, particularly when we’re led astray about her in the early parts of the story. As I mentioned earlier, Fincher is interested in digging deeper beyond genre tropes. Amy isn’t just the archetypal femme fatale. She’s a messier, more challenging character.

On the other side of things, I think Affleck is perfectly cast as Nick, in what may be his most autobiographical role to date. Affleck has never been accused of murder or kidnapping. But heknows how harsh media public and perception can be; how difficult it is to win people over once they’ve made up their minds about you. Despite Affleck’s success, including a major comeback after the Gigli debacle; and reinventing himself as an acclaimed filmmaker, you only have to look at the reaction to his casting as Batman in the Batman vs. Superman to see his name still carries negative connotations. The most fascinating sections of the film- to me at least- where the scenes in which Nick attempts to win people over to his side. It all comes down to saying the right words in the right way. When he discovers that Amy is alive he enlists the help of attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry).

Gone Girl was shot by Jeff Cronenweth- who also photographed Fincher’s Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In the opening scenes I didn’t think Gone Girl felt like a David Fincher film. But as we see glimpses of the past via Amy’s narration and more scenes set at night- including a gorgeous reminiscence by Amy about seeing Nick with Andie, set during a snowy evening- the film becomes as distinctly Finchery as the other Cronenweth photographed Fincher films. 

Fincher even in his first film, the compromised Alien 3, has always been a strong visual stylist, creating distinct worlds that seem to swallow us- and the characters-whole. There’s a murder scene here that’s- even if you’ve read the novel-more shocking and violent then most modern horror films. Fincher is also arguably the most precise filmmaker, in terms of composition and camera movement, since the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. In my review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I mentioned that Fincher was maybe too restrained for such pulpy material. But it's Fincher restraint that works here. Fincher communicates the absurd humour of the book's premise but is also to make the film play like an authentic drama 

The preciseness of Fincher's films doesn’t just come from his camera work. It's also a result of whom he picks as his editor. Kirk Baxter- who won back to back editing Oscars for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with Angus Wall- does a masterful job of making the sections of the film narrated by Amy feel fluid and organic, taking a literary device and making it work cinematically. The montage in which we see Amy devising her plan, with her narration playing over it, is some of the best work Baxter has done for Fincher. Despite being close to 2 ½ hours, I didn’t feel the film dragged or anything was rushed, except for the ending which needed a few more minutes to bring its themes home. But I think that’s more of a writing issue then an editing one.

Speaking of the writing, Flynn does an impressive job of adapting her own novel. While there were certain elements- including a subplot involving Nick and Margo’s Alzheimer’s stricken father- that I feel should of been fleshed out more, Flynn is able to get across the major themes of the story and creates a compact retelling of her intricate novel.

Coming back to Fincher, not only is he a meticulous technician, but he also has a keen eye for casting. Aside from Affleck and Pike, the crucial supporting roles are filled by actors who may not have been another directors’ first choice. I haven’t seen any of Perry’s Madea films but I think Perry shows a new side of himself here. He’s convincing as a charismatic lawyer who knows how to sell people an image.  Kim Dickens brings a certain low key Southern charm and intelligence to the role of detective Boney. And Patrick Fugit (from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) conveys lot in an almost wordless performance as officer Jim Gilpin, sceptical of Nick's innocence. Carrie Coon- who is mostly known as a stage actress- makes an impressive film debut. While Coon’s doesn’t look like Affleck’s twin sister, from her first scene she’s totally believable as someone’s sister. Coon makes Margo someone both stern and caring. She loves her brother but isn’t afraid to point out Nick’s screw ups. Neil Patrick Harris, known for his comedic chops, nicely plays Desi’s creepiness just above the surface. I did feel that Ratajkowski as Andie came across as a plot device rather than a fully realized character.

Some will dismiss this film as ridiculous nonsense, and will wonder why Fincher is wasting his time directing an adaptation of an “airport novel.” Gone Girl isn’t a completely realistic story and does have some trashy elements. But if you get beyond the surface level plot mechanics, the film does have something to say about marriage and creates a complex portrayal of a toxic relationship in the form of Nick and Amy. Amy comes back to Nick when she realizes he’s finally become the man she wanted him to be. Amy tells Nick that the only time he really liked himself was when he was attempting to be someone Amy would like. There’s something truthful- regardless of what you think of Amy- in that statement. We constantly try to be someone else to win peoples' affection. Nick can’t win the public over unless he manipulates them. And Nick eventually decides to pretend- for what may be the rest of his life- that he and Amy are happy together. Gone Girl isn’t just about how people perceive each other; it’s also about how we create those very perceptions, in both conscious and unconscious ways. It then leaves us with an important question: Once we create those perceptions, how do we escape them?    

Friday, 26 September 2014

Good Job: "Whiplash"

Mild Spoilers

It’s rare that a film leaves me as emotionally drained and left with a genuine sense of “wow” as Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which I saw at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax. I don’t know if Whiplash is a great film but there’s no doubt in my mind it's a visceral experience that stayed with me hours after the film ended. If you still believe that films can shock and hit you right in the stomach, then go see this film when it’s released  this October.

Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan who becomes a player in the studio band run by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). But Fletcher isn’t merely a conductor. He’s a tyrant who pushes his students beyond their limits, verbally abusing them and even threatening physical violence . Andrew is soon caught in a whirlpool of obsession. An obsession with greatness, whatever the cost.

Not since R. Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket has an authority figure been portrayed with such terrifying conviction. And Simmons truly is terrifying in this film. You don’t want to be in a room with this guy when he explodes. And even when he’s not verbally abusing his student, he’s so intimidating that the film becomes more suspenseful than most thrillers. Even if the scenario of a music teacher essentially being a drill sergeant isn’t completely believable, I always believe Simmons.

In movies like this the bigger performance gets most of the attention. And while Simmons deserves his praise, Teller is also worthy of notice. In certain ways Teller has the more difficult role to play, needing to balance being a sympathetic protagonist and displaying Andrew’s crueler side. He breaks up with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) because he believes she’s preventing him from achieving greatness. And when he does call off the relationship he does so with so remorse. He’s also quite arrogant at a dinner get together with his family. Teller plays both sides of the character very well. I never hated Andrew but I didn’t always like him either. What I admire about the film is the dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher isn't black and white. Fletcher is black but Andrew is a shade of grey. 

While these two men feel opposed on the film’s surface I think both Andrew and Fletcher need each other in a twisted kind of way. Andrew wants to be broken down an built back up by Fletcher. And Fletcher wants Andrew to be thick skinned enough to prove Fletcher’s philosophy- which he lays out near the film’s end- that "[t]here are no  two words in the  English language more harmful than 'good job.'" The only way to truly be great is if someone viscously criticizes you. Fletcher recounts how Charlie "Bird" Parker had a cymbal thrown at him by Jo Jones after messing up while playing with Jones. In Fletcher's view if that  incident never happened Parker never would have become a legendary sax player. Even Andrew believes that Parker dying at 34 doesn't matter since Parker is still remembered for achievements.

The film takes on a “art imitates life” quality. Not only is the film is about pushing artists to the edge but Simmons and Teller had to sweat blood to make this film. Simmons has never been as ferocious as he is here and Teller gives a physically draining performance. Teller was already a drummer before shooting this film. There are sequences where Fletcher is driving Andrew to perfect his drumming. In these sequences Teller is committed to making the audience feel Andrew's exhaustion. Credit also goes to Teller’s stunt man and drumming instructor for performing some of the drumming.

While the film is very much about the two central performances, Chazelle’s direction and Tom Cross’ editing are also stellar. The climatic musical performance is cut to perfection and Chazelle makes us feel the sweat and drive of performance. Sharone Meir’s cinematography places the film in between reality and some kind of nightmare. And even though we don’t see much of the city in this film there’s something very “New York” about that brown and shadowy music room. It instantly reminds us of those images and sounds of the jazz greats. And those great artists populate the soundtrack as well.

There are some issues with the film however. Andrew’s relationship with Nicole it didn’t develop enough before Andrew breaks it off. I like Benoist’s natural and sweet performance but I wonder if the film needed the subplot at all. There are also moments when Fletcher comes across as too one-note of a character. Even a scene where Fletcher mourns over a former student- in retrospect after a certain plot point- feels like just another way for Fletcher to manipulate his students. But maybe the film is stronger because Fletcher is such an absolute and unrelenting character. I think that people will feel the film takes Fletcher’s side and believes in his ideology. I can’t speak for Chazelle- who also wrote the screenplay, based on his short film- and what he believes. I do think that Andrew eventually sides with Fletcher’s philosophy, even though he questions it. I like that the film is bold enough not to say “It’s okay. We don’t agree with what this guy believes.” It ends on a darker note, a perverted take on the inspirational final music performance we would see in another film.

Despite certain issues Whiplash is an expertly orchestrated film. Like a great musical performance it knows how to build and slow down. It  completely washed over me. Whatever you think of Fletcher’s ideology- and whether the film agrees with him- the film itself achieves a kind of transcendence that we rarely see in movies these days.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Some Brief Thoughts on the "Shutter Island" and "Minority Report" TV Series.

I remember when a common trope in Hollywood was to adapt classic TV series for the big screen. Now it appears we’re entering a period where more movies will be adapted for TV. Just recently the adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (which they executive produced) was met with critical acclaim. Just this past week two new movies inspired- TV series were announced; and both have the respective directors of those films as part of the series.

Steven Spielberg is developing a series based on his 2002 film Minority Report. The film starred Tom Cruise as a police officer in a distant future where people known as precogs can see murders before they happen.  Martin Scorsese is also set to direct a pilot for HBO based on his 2010 film Shutter Island, entitled Ashecliffe.  In the film Leonardo DiCaprio played a US Marshall in 1954 who is sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at Ashecliffe mental hospital . He then discovers not everything is what it seems and there may be a sinister conspiracy against him. The series will explore the origins of Ashecliffe in the early 20th Century. The pilot will be scripted by Dennis Lehane, who authored the book upon which the film was based.

It’s not surprising we’re getting more films adapted in TV series.  We’re living in a second Golden Age of Television. TV is the now the place where talented artists experiment in dense and nuanced long form storytelling. Instead of a sequel or remake for the big screen, it’s now a option to explore of a film world’s mythology through TV.  

Full disclosure: I love Shutter Island and it’s actually a favourite film of mine. I also like Lehane’s original novel. The fact that both he and Scorsese are involved in this project lends it certain amount of legitimacy. I loved how Scorsese visualized that film so seeing him return to that world is a big deal for me. I’m intrigued by the idea of exploring how mental institutions were run in the early parts of the 20th Century, when mental illness and how to treat it wasn’t completely understood. I think we’re looking at a potentially compelling psychological horror/period piece series.

However, I’m still scratching my head over how they’ll approach making Minority Report in to a series. I don’t think it can be a sequel to the film- since the film ended with the government not using precogs anymore- unless the series wanted to explore how Washington’s police force- the only  city where the “Pre-crime Unit” operated- went about adjusting to investigating murders and other crimes without the use of precogs. Maybe it’ll also go the prequel route- maybe they’ll recast the role of Chief John Anderton. They could also go the Prometheus route, with the series taking place in the same universe but telling a different kind of story. Spielberg’s involvement- similar to Scorsese and Lehane’s with Ashecliffe- does lend the project some legitimacy. And ideally, once we learn more details about the show’s premise, it'll make perfect sense how the film’s mythology will work as a TV series.

Both these projects, based on films I admire, are definitely ones which to look forward. The internal mythologies of both Minority Report and Shutter Island provide potential for intriguing science fiction and horror story telling. Count me in for both series.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

I Thought We Had A Chance: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

Warning: This article discusses Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in depth, so don't read until you've seen the film.

Pierre Boulle wrote the novel Planet of the Apes in 1963. He created an absurd and ingenious vision of a planet where civilization had been turned upside down. On this alien planet apes- who drove cars and wore suits- ruled over primitive humans. The novel had depth but when it was adapted in to the classic 1968 film with Charlton Heston the story became a much darker allegory. In the novel the ape planet was an alien world light years from Earth. The film’s ending reveals that Heston’s astronaut George Taylor was on Earth along. He discovers the ruins of the statue of liberty on the shore. This image of the statue symbolizes mankind’s ultimate self-destruction. As the series progressed through four sequels the films became even bleaker and we found ourselves becoming emotionally invested in the ape characters. The mythology also deepened and expanded, eventually becoming a circular tale via time travel.

In 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and this year's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes we're no longer merely in the realm of the absurd. Instead we’re treated with a world that feels remarkably real and emotionally immediate. These films lean toward a more realistic take on the mythology, which isn’t too surprising given Hollywood’s tendency to “ground” certain genre properties nowadays. But thankfully these two films aren’t self-consciously grim and gritty.  Even so, the Planet of the Apes series was never without its dark elements. Moreover- these two films are so distanced in the timeline from the world of the original film- that this tonal grounding doesn’t feel like posturing on behalf of the filmmakers.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does the mythology justice and succeeds as both a standalone film and a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn builds upon the foundation laid in its predecessor, both enriching the first film as well as using that foundation to tell a complex story about the quest for peace and the possibility of co-habitation between apes and humans. Rise was a re-working of the series fourth installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn, in turn, reinterprets the final film in the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. On paper, using the fourth and fifth films in a franchise as the basis for a new starting point for a series seems odd. But in the case of Planet of the Apes, these films make sense in terms of re-starting the franchise. Taking influence from Conquest and Battle allows the new series to work both as a spiritual prequel to the original film as well as doing something different with this franchise rather than just re-visiting the initial concept.

Dawn takes place 10 years after the events of Rise. After the obligatory news broadcast opening, which details the spread of the simian flu- the result of scientific testing on apes in the pursuit of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s- we’re reintroduced to Caesar (played via motion capture by Andy Serkis)-the hyper intelligent ape around which the first film largely centred. Caesar now rules over a clan of apes in post-apocalyptic Earth.  I do love the opening scenes of the apes hunting food- which harkens back to apes hunting humans in the original film- then returning to their home, where we see them living a peaceful existence, no longer in fear of captivity. The apes are unsure that humanity even still exists but are soon made aware of human survivors.

They come in to the apes' forest, hoping to gain access to a dam that could provide power to the city in which many remaining humans live. The apes tell them to go away, which shocks the humans, since they didn't know the apes were capable of speech. Caesar and the apes follow the humans back to the city. Caesar states that apes don’t want war. He wishes for the humans to stay in their territory while the apes will stay in theirs. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) goes back to the forest in an attempt to persuade Caesar to allow them access to the dam. Caesar concedes but his second in command Koba (Toby Kebbell) presents a threat; he still harbours hatred toward humans from his days being a guinea pig.

Caesar isn’t entirely a pacifist but he’s no war-monger either. He doesn’t want to go to war with humans, though Koba does. Caesar feels that by allowing the humans access to the dam he’s working in the best interests of his kind, avoiding any conflict that could get the apes killed. But it’s evident that Caesar has learned kindness and compassion from the noble humans he’s met. He also sees Malcolm is a good man and senses the humans are desperate.  

Caesar and Koba represent “two sides of the same coin.” Both were the result of testing by humans that made being super intelligent- and both were imprisoned by humans and treated with cruelty. But while Caesar knew love from his surrogate father, scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) and Will's Alzheimer’s stricken father Charles (John Lithgow), Koba never knew love from humans. When Caesar mentions that humans need to work on the dam Koba points to his numerous scars and repeats “Human. Work.” It’s this moment that encapsulates Koba’s back-story and his view on humanity. Caesar doesn’t completely trust humans but he’s left a lot of his bitterness behind, becoming a family man- married to Cornelia (a underused Judy Greer) and the father to both Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and a new born ape. Koba is a complete lone wolf (or ape).

There’s almost something Shakespearean about the power play between Caesar and Koba. Like many characters in Shakespeare, including the kings, Caesar is brought down by someone he trusted. Akin to his namesake, Caesar has a Brutus, which is Koba. There’s even a silent “Et tu Brute?” between them. Koba shoots Caesar using a human gun and blames the supposed assassination on the humans, leading the apes in battle against the humans. Caesar “loved wisely but not well," to quote Othello. He tells Blue Eyes- after Koba has taken over the city- that he trusted Koba because he was an ape.

Caesar’s character arc through this film leads to the realization that apes can be as treacherous as humans. When Malcolm finds Caesar alive, Caesar has them stop at his former house. He views the video recording of Will teaching him sign language. Caesar and the audience are reminded in this scene of how far Caesar has come, from a baby to a revolutionary to a leader. I also think this video shows Caesar how the love he received from Will is what made him trust Malcolm. When Malcolm asks who was on the video Caesar simply tells him “A good man. Like you.” Malcolm and Caesar don’t have the same emotional connection as Will and Caesar but a mutual respect grows between them.

One element I found fascinating while thinking back on the film relates to its anti-gun message. While it’s Koba’s actions that lead to the mass violence in the story the film uses the image of a gun to represent the threat between ape and human peace.Caesar doesn’t want the humans to bring in guns. In one scene it’s discovered that Carver (Kirk Acevedo) has brought in a gun. This leads to tension after a charming moment between Ellie (Keri Russell) and Caesar and Cornelia’s baby. Koba uses a gun to frame the humans for Caesar’s death and manipulate the apes in to violence.

The anti-gun message stands out to me because Charlton Heston- the star of the original film- became infamous for being the president of the NRA in his late years. He famously declared “From my cold dead hands” in defense of the second amendment. While I won’t be as presumptuous as to say the film is an attack on Heston’s political views, it’s hard to imagine that the image Heston created for himself wasn’t in the back of the screenwriters’ minds. The issue of gun rights has arguably never been a more pressing issue in the States then it is now. The Apes films always commented on the state of the world during the 60s/70s. It only seems appropriate that the film would confront this particular issue.

While most blockbusters present violence and destruction as the only means to defeat evil, violence doesn’t solve anything in this film. Even when Koba is defeated his actions have led humans and apes to brink of war. Despite having some spectacular images of apes on horsebacks using machine guns (which to be fair is awesome) and a stunning action climax, Dawn is sincerely anti-violence. As in Battle the apes themselves even preach against violence against their own kind. main ape commandment is “ape shall never kill ape.” To be better than humans the apes must not murder each other like humans. Koba breaks this commandment when he kills Rocket’s son Ash, who won’t kill a human. Despite hating humans, Koba is not above killing apes if they stand in the way of destroying humanity. By killing an ape Koba shows that he's no better then the humans he despises. He's capable of the same treachery and murder of his own kind.
And as a leader, Koba is the opposite of Caesar, a tyrant.

Koba hangs on a edge at the film’s climax, after a fight between him and Caesar. He says to Caesar  “Ape shall never kill ape,” to which Caesar grabs his hand and then intones “You are not ape,” letting him fall, echoing Koba’s execution of Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) at the end of Rise.  By betraying the commandment Koba is no longer an ape. He’s a twisted version of an ape that needs to be let go. But while Koba dies he still gets what he wants, a war between apes and humans. The ending of the film is similar to that of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in that the heroes don’t really win. Caesar didn’t want a war but now he has to fight against humans if his kind is to survive. Just as how Batman had to take the fall for Harvey Dent’s crimes to save Gotham's soul.

Malcolm tells Caesar he thought humans and apes had a chance to live peacefully together. Caesar replies that he did too, calling Malcolm his friend. This is an incredibly sad ending. Malcolm and Caesar parting ways represents the final breaking of apes and humans, the destroyed hope of peaceful co-habitation 

Similar to Rise, Dawn’s main flaw is the characterization regarding its human characters is a touch too thin. I really wish I got to know these people a little better. I do, however, like that the film allows these people to share very human moments. The characters as a result aren’t completely soulless. I like the parallel between Malcolm and Caesar being fathers who are attempting to get close to their sons. Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is still adjusting to his new step mom, the aforementioned Ellie. The film is very male dominated. The female characters- Ellie and Cornelia- have even less characterization than the males. Clarke makes a solid lead, showing both vulnerability and an inner strength. Russell does well with what little she’s given. Gary Oldman also does fine work as Dreyfus, the human leader. While Dreyfus could’ve been made in to a shallow human villain there’s an devastating moment where we learn what Dreyfus has lost.  

Matt Reeves takes over the director’s chair from Rise’s Rupert Wyatt. This is Reeves’ fourth film, following The Pallbearer, (1996) Cloverfield (2008) and Let Me In (2010), the remake of the Swedish Vampire film Let The Right One In (2008). Reeves is also known as the creator of the TV series Felicity (starring Russell.) Let Me In is the only previous directorial effort from Reeves that I had seen before this film. While that film strewed too close to the original, Reeves’ direction was elegant and his command of tone impressive. Reeves bring that same directorial elegance to this film. While there is plenty of action as the film progresses, Reeves doesn’t stage the action in an empty, bombastic fashion. The ape attack on the city has real dramatic weight and a conscious sense of  horror to it. A 360 degree shot on the top of a tank blends beauty and utter destruction majestically. This shot reminds me of the shot from Let Me In, in which we're in a car as it rolls over. Like Wyatt, Reeves favours build up to outright bombast. This is even more leisurely paced in some ways than Rise was. But I like how the film is more interested in story-telling and atmosphere then it is in set pieces.

The motion capture work in the previous film was impressive but it feels like it’s on another level here. Serkis has revolutionized film acting over the last decade. His work as Gollum changed how we thought about CGI characters on film. His work on Caesar is even more nuanced and emotional. To me Caesar feels as real any modern film character and it’s been amazing witnessing his journey as a character over these two films. Kebbell also deserves props for making Koba a haunted antagonist, a character whose evil masks their own hatred and bitterness. Koba is an incredibly tragic character who’s as important to this film as Caesar.

I don’t want to oversell Dawn of the Planet of the Apes but I think Hollywood would be in better shape if more blockbuster type films were like this. In its strongest moments it comes as close to an artistic vision we’ve seen in a franchise tent pole this summer. Rise and Dawn show that franchise films don’t have to be completely corporate mandated and soulless- that there’s potential to create compelling stories using a familiar brand. Both RIse and Dawn have redefined- for me at least- how I view this franchise and what it’s capable of artistically. And I'm excited to see where the series goes next.