Thursday, 25 May 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Dir: David Yates
2016
****
I’m not the biggest Harry Potter fan in the world, so my enthusiasm for spin-off stories is limited. Someone left comment on one of my earlier Harry Potter reviews and asked me if I had had any sort of childhood at all? My answer was yes, of course, it just happened long before the boy wizard was a twinkle in J. K. Rowling’s eye. When Harry Potter first came out I was chasing girls and drinking beer, I had no time for children’s fantasy novels, and I still don’t, even though I have far more time on my hands now that I no longer chase girls and drink far less beer than I used to. However, I didn’t mind the films, in fact I enjoyed the last few or so and David Yates was my favourite director of the franchise. My little sister was really into the books, she liked the films too but was often left disappointed that her favourite parts of the series were left out, although she appreciated why they would be. Like many book series, it is impossible to adapt every bit of content, so it was good to hear that it was J. K. Rowling herself who wrote the screenplay to the hotly anticipated Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is mentioned several times as a school textbook in the Harry Potter book series, so adapting it into its own story and giving the author something of a background is rather neat I think. Rowling wrote a physical version of the book in 2001 to raise money for the British charity Comic Relief. It was written as a textbook, listing eighty-five ‘beasts’ as well as where they come from. It is forwarded by the fictitious author Newt Scamander. Rowling’s screen play is based on how Scamander discovered the beasts and follows his various adventures in capturing and studying them across all four corners of the globe. I suppose it’s an obvious idea in keeping the franchise in the cinema but I think it’s pretty clever, as it still feels like a Harry Potter film but without featuring him or having to fit within the constraints of his story. It’s the perfect sequel/prequel/continuation of the world Rowling has created. The idea could have taken the story anywhere in the world but I love that it starts in 1920’s New York. It’s a great excuse to use a bit of art-nouveau, visually it’s a world away from the old English gothic architecture of Hogwarts but somehow it lends itself into the world of magic rather well. There is a bit of that style in certain Potter films, The Order of the Phoenix being the first that comes to mind and I think I liked that film more than the others because of it. There is a mobster vs wizards feel about it, wands and spats, it’s original and it works. Sure the cynic in me says Rowling is out of ideas but actually I think this is the right step in a different direction. She’s created a world, a successful world and one full of possibilities, why would she abandon it. I don’t think it’s all about the money either, sure there is a lot of tie-in stuff such as the publication of the screenplay but there is also a lot of magic stuff for the true fans. Rowling released four pieces of writing on her online page Pottermore as an introduction to the film, titled History of Magic in North America. It is included Information about scourers in North America, brutal and violent magical mercenaries who played a big role in the historic Salem witch trials of the 1600s, as well as info about various American wand makers, the role magic played in World War One, Native American magic, the foundation of MACUSA, the way No-Maj/Wizarding segregation was enforced brutally after a violent and terrifying breach of the international statute of secrecy and the institution of Rappaports Law, and life in 1920s Wizarding America, with info about Wand Permits and Prohibition. Later in the year, Rowling released a second part to her History of Magic in North America series, entitled "Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry", which details the founding of the pre-eminent American Wizarding academy and allows users to sort themselves into one of the four houses of the school. The school itself is also mentioned in the film. Now I’m not a Potter fan (are they called Pot-heads?) but I am a nerd, so I appreciate this kind of thing. I found the film to be rather universal too, so I may have missed a few references here and there during the film but I never felt ostracized or muggle-like. I thought Eddie Redmayne was good as author and wizard Newt Scamander, although I can think of other actors who I believe would have been more suited to the role if I’m being honest. Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol play sisters, one a witch and the other accomplished in Legilimency (the art of mind-reading) and both play and look the parts perfectly. Colin Farrell is surprisingly good in his ‘is he a good guy/is he a bad guy role as a high-ranking auror and director of magical security for MACUSA. I don’t say ‘surprisingly because I don’t rate him as an actor, I do very much, but I just didn’t see him suiting the role at all. I was thrilled to see one of my all-time favourites Samantha Morton in a strong role and I thought Carmen Ejogo was great (although I would have liked to see more of her) and Ezra Miller was brilliant. My heart sank a little when Johnny Depp was revealed, I can’t think of many magic-themed films he’s been in but it still seems like the genre has had its full share of him. I loved Ron Pearlman’s Goblin gangster character but I’m sure Rowling regrets having Jon Voight in the film after all the horrible things he’s said since the film was made. The film’s big star and scene-stealer though is relative unknown actor (for now) Dan Fogler. A muggle who gets caught up in the world of magic by mistake but leaves a lasting impression on the magic folk he encounters. The special effects are good, although a bit questionable in places and I’m not sure all of the beasts looked quite as good as they could (except for Pickett the Bowtruckle, he is probably my favorite film character of 2016) but on the whole it was visually pleasing. I was pleasantly entertained throughout and I look forward to the next chapter and long may Rowling’s franchise continue.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Paterson
Dir: Jim Jarmusch
2016
*****

I don't think Jim Jarmusch has made a film yet that I haven't enjoyed being engulfed by or lost in. Paterson started out as a film about the great poet William Carlos Williams, born in Paterson, New Jersey, but grew into more of a tribute to him and the city. William Carlos Williams wrote a book of poetry which he called Paterson, after the city that gave him such inspiration and Jarmusch's lead character is also a poet, called Paterson, living in the same Paterson, New Jersey as his hero, William Carlos Williams. The film is somewhere between Grant Gee's 2012 dream-like essay Patience (After Sebald) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's melancholic and rather thought-provoking 2004 film Uzak in that it is about someone else's work (and in the case of Sebald, also of a place) while celebrating the day-to-day and seeing the beauty in the ordinary, surely the sources of all great poems. The film is poetic but not a poem, although it is narrated somewhat by poems our protagonist Paterson (played by Adam Driver) is writing throughout the film. These poems are not by William Carlos Williams as you'd might expect, although one of his is featured. The poems from the film are written by living poet Ron Padgett and are written on the screen and stretched over time, as though Paterson is still writing them while he goes about his daily routines. Routine is something Jarmusch seems to be drawn to in his more recent films. It's almost as if you can categorize his films in two groups; before Broken Flowers and after Broken Flowers. Everything after Broken Flowers seems to follow a repeated turn of events or some sort of routine, while everything before had a more prominent feel of fluidity about it. That said, similar themes lie in all of Jarmusch's films, most of them are inspired by music, so it is nice to see one that is about something poetry, something new but something that still feels very much like a Jarmusch. Our protagonist Paterson is clearly a big thinker, although we only hear his opinions through his poetry and occasionally when he visits his favourite bar every evening. He drives his bus through the city he loves, refuses to own a phone and listens to the people of Paterson. His passion for poetry is collected in one single note book which his girlfriend Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani) begs him to make copies of. Paterson soon finds himself lost and contemplative, following the destruction of his book by their pet Bull Dog (played by the Palm Dog Award winning Nellie). I felt a connection with Paterson right away. His passion is his, and while he is told of his talent, he doesn't seek a way to share it with anyone or try and get it published, worrying that the integrity of his work would be somehow broken. I totally get that. However, there is no regret in Paterson, other than leaving his note book where his dog could get hold of it, he is content and unphased, able to enjoy the garden for what it is. Laura however is a bit of a whirl-wind of ideas, which she always implements, almost immediately, to seemingly great success. Her open enthusiasm is a contrast to Paterson's persona, she almost seems fickle with her ideas, although she always sees them through. Their relationship works through communication and mutual understanding, it's nice to see that in a film, it is also quite rare. I saw a lot of Jarmusch in both characters, Laura being his old films and Paterson representing his new direction. I thought Masatoshi Nagase's appearance towards the end of the film was quite telling. He stared in Jarmusch's fourth feature, 1989's Mystery Train and he may or may not be the same character. Whether he is or he isn't, he bridges the gap between old Jarmusch and new Jarmusch quite well. Paterson bumping into Method Man in a launderette was also a very old school bit of Jarmusch which was appreciated. It's a very reflective study of creativity, a beautifully subdued film, matured but still 100% Jarmusch. I loved every minute and was swept away almost instantly.
Legends of the Fall
Dir: Edward Zwick
1994
***
1994's Legends of the Fall is something of a sprawling epic, based on 1979 novel of the same title by Jim Harrison, about the rivalry of three brother, covering several decades. The three brothers, played by Aidan Quinn, Brad Pitt and Henry Thomas, live with their father (played by Anthony Hopkins) at the family farm in the wilderness and plains of Montana in the early 20th century. The three brothers share a bond but are completely different from one another, their competitive nature often getting the best of them. Alfred (Quinn) is the eldest and looks after his brothers as best he can, always following his father's rules and doing the best he can at everything he attempts. His resentment runs deep, as his wayward younger brother Tristan (Pitt), who consistently flees the farm and adopts the traditions of the Native American, is openly regarded as his father's favourite. The younger son Samuel (Thomas) is his mother's favourite and adored by both his older brothers who are fiercely protective of him. The film covers the best part of five decades and sees the brothers abandoned by their mother, fight in World War II, compete for the same woman (Julia Ormond), fight bears (played by Bart the Bear, Hollywood legend) and run for congress. Much of the film is overcooked for that classic 'epic' feel. The film looks great throughout but I'm far too cynical to fall for its dream-like allure, no one ages over the forty odd years and the 'and so time passed..' montages became quite tiresome after the hundredth time. If it weren't for the montages and long, slow panning landscape scenes (and the fact everyone speaks so slowly) the whole film could have been wrapped up in an hour or so. That said, nothing ever feels like filler, far from it, it almost feels like 133 minutes wasn't enough time to tell the story properly. Had Legends of the Fall been adapted these days it would have been a mini-series, although I'm not sure who would watch it. Indeed everyone I know who has a soft spot for the film are all women in their late thirties. My wife regards it as one of her favourite films, I asked her what it was about and she couldn't tell me, she just remembered that it featured Brad Pitt on a horse. There is a lot to like about the film, even if you're not that bothered about sex-symbols and equestrianism but I would argue that there was nothing to really get excited about (unless all you're bothered about are sex-symbols and equestrianism). I can't fault the direction or acting, I just found it all a little too melodramatic and just that little bit hollow.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Long Goodbye
Dir: Robert Altman
1973
*****
Robert Altman's take on Raymond Chandler's classic Philip Marlowe novel is a wonderful neo-noir and about as Altman-esque as it gets. Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe is slightly erratic, at odds with his surroundings and mumbles under his breath rather than boom out confidently. Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett spent a lot of time talking over the plot. Altman wanted Marlowe to be a loser. He even nicknamed Gould's character Rip Van Marlowe, as if he had been asleep for 20 years, had woken up, and was wandering around Los Angeles in the early 1970s but "trying to invoke the morals of a previous era." It is a huge contrast from the original novel, very much a 70's reinvention of the 50s version that keeps the core of the story but changes many aspects of it at the same time. It may not sound like it but there is an authenticity about the story, and the fact that the screenplay was written by Leigh Brackett who co-wrote the screenplay for 1946's The Big Sleep goes some way in underlining this. Producers Jerry Bick and Elliott Kastner bought the cinematic rights to the novel and made a production deal with the United Artists distribution company. They commissioned the screenplay from Leigh Brackett, who had been Kastner's client when he was an agent, she was the obvious choice because of her talent and her work on the original. However, she was reluctant at first, saying: "United Artists had a commitment for a film with Elliott Gould, so either you take Elliott Gould or you don't make the film. Elliott Gould was not exactly my idea of Philip Marlowe, but anyway there we were. Also, as far as the story was concerned, time had gone by—it was twenty-odd years since the novel was written, and the private eye had become a cliché. It had become funny. You had to watch out what you were doing. If you had Humphrey Bogart at the same age that he was when he did The Big Sleep, he wouldn't do it the same way. Also, we were faced with a technical problem of this enormous book, which was the longest one Chandler ever wrote. It's tremendously involuted and convoluted. If you did it the way he wrote it, you would have a five-hour film". She also said later that Brian G. Hutton was originally attached as director and wanted the script structured so that "the heavy had planned the whole thing from the start" but when writing it she found the idea contrived and didn't work. The producers then offered the script to both Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich to direct it. Both refused the offer, but Bogdanovich recommended Robert Altman. There is a story that United Artists president David Picker may have picked Gould to play Marlowe as a ploy to get Altman to direct. At the time, Gould was in professional disfavor because of his rumored troubles on the set of A Glimpse of Tiger, in which he bickered with costar Kim Darby, fought with director Anthony Harvey and acted erratically. Consequently, he had not worked in nearly two years; nevertheless, Altman convinced Bick that Gould suited the role. Elliott Gould had to undergo a medical examination and a psychological examination attesting to his mental stability before he could be cast. Gould's Philip Marlowe is incredibly cool, no more cool than Humphrey Bogart's Marlowe, just cool in a totally different way. Once described as "a study of a moral and decent man cast adrift in a selfish, self-obsessed society where lives can be thrown away without a backward glance and any notions of friendship and loyalty are meaningless", it really is a stark contrast to the original 50's movie. It is fair to say that Leigh Brackett took a few literary liberties with the original story, plot and characters in her adaptation, the story's climactic conclusion being the biggest and most striking. Fans of the original might not think much of the overall style of the film but the ending packs a punch that surely all Raymond Chandler purists cannot resist, indeed it was the ending that finally bagged Altman as director, his only condition being that they didn't change it. Brackett recalled meeting Altman while doing Images. "We conferred about ten o'clock in the morning and yakked all day, and I went back to the hotel and typed all the notes and went back the next day. In a week we had it all worked out. He was a joy to work with. He had a very keen story mind." Altman's adaption satirizes the changes in society between the 50s, when the private-detective genre was popular and the 70s, when crime films were very different in style. There are many intentional contrasts to the two versions, for example, one cliché of the genre invoked in the film is culled from the novel when Marlowe, under police interrogation, asks, "Is this where I'm supposed to say, 'What's all this about?' and he says, 'Shut up! I ask the questions'?", also, Marlowe's chain smoking (Gould had to smoke in ever single scene), contrasted with a health-conscious California, in which no one else in the movie smokes, is another example of his incongruity. The American iconography that Chandler expressed in his novels is maintained in the film though. In addition to the 1948 Lincoln Continental Convertible Cabriolet that Marlowe drives, Gould also wears a tie with American flags on it, just like in the novels. The performances are impeccable. It is one of Gould's finest performances, and Sterling Hayden, Nina Van Pallandt, Jim Bouton and Mark Rydell are all amazing in their complex characters, Bouton wasn't even an actor but a Baseball player! It's incredible to think that so much of it was off the cuff. When it came to the scenes between Philip Marlowe and Roger Wade, Altman had Elliott Gould and Sterling Hayden ad lib most of their dialogue because, according to the director, Hayden was drunk and stoned on marijuana most of the time anyway. Altman had originally wanted Dan Blocker for the role of Wade but he died just before principal photography began. He was reportedly thrilled by Hayden's performance, despite him being second choice to Blocker. You don't have to be particularly eagle-eyed to have spotted a young Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his underpants) in a small role as one of Mark Rydell's henchman. The film was panned by the critics of the time who mainly complained that the film was lazy. Now, I'm 50/50 with the works of Altman but this is probably his best film (along with M*A*S*H) and a huge cult classic. Elliott Gould has said that so long as he is physically able he holds out hopes that he could reprise the role of Phillip Marlowe one day. He has a screenplay entitled "It's Always Now," based on a Raymond Chandler story, "The Curtain." The Chandler estate sold him the rights to the story for just $1. How cool would that be?

Monday, 22 May 2017

Catfight
Dir: Onur Tukel
2017
***
I like a dry comedy as much as the next man but Catfight pushed my enjoyment for such humour to the limit somewhat. I loved the concept and the structure of the film. I loved the absurdity and the way the violence was never restrained - even though I'm sure writer/director Onur Tukel would have been advised to tone it down. I'm really not a big fan of Sandra Oh or Anne Heche either but the pair played their parts so well, and so suitably hateful, that it would be fair to say that both were among the best performances of the year, in my humble opinion. Alicia Silverstone is another actor I don't much care for, but she played her part so well and like Oh and Heche, wasn't afraid to portray herself in a negative, rather repulsive light. It feels like three great actresses have just stuck their fingers up to mainstream cinema and have said "You don't cast us, but you're the ones losing out" and I wholeheartedly agree.  However, there is a part of me that feels that only people as repulsively self-centred and snobbish as the characters within the film could actually love it. I can just see the film being discussed at child-like 48th birthday parties and baby-showers without any sense of irony or acknowledgment that they are the ones targeted as negative within the film. Maybe it's just that the performances are that great but there is an element of 'look at how silly we are' and I just don't consider myself part of that demographic. I have entirely different faults. Performances aside, the absurdist structure and unique role-reversal scenario makes Catfight one of those quirky oddities that lay between brilliant and annoying. I think I like the fact that Catfight makes me feel altogether bothered by its structure more than I actually liked or enjoyed the film, again, this makes Catfight pretty unique and something I have to give it credit for. I do like the extra-dry scathing humour, especially when directed at late night comedy-chat shows that seem to be overly preoccupied with politics these days. I thought the political angle was handled particularly well too, in that it (more specifically a war) plays a huge part in the story and in the character's lives and yet is treated as something of a background sub-plot. It initially comes across of a tale of karma but as it progresses it reveals itself as more of an opponent to the idea and rather makes the case for making oneself a target and that the it's the quiet ones (and the simple ones too) who coast their way through things. In many respects it could be seen as an essay on passion, the perils and the pitfalls as well as the positives. Sometimes people misunderstand what makes something a success and what makes a failure, Catfight goes a long way to point out that it is all down to perspective but it also points out that we all are influenced by society and those who say they don't care what people think rarely mean it. Sometimes all you have left is animalistic rage, and sometimes you just can't keep it inside. Catfight is a huge repertoire of ideas, suggestion and sociology. Simple but effective, the whole women fighting thing is one big cynical plot device (and title) to pull the viewer in (because everyone stops and watched a catfight) which makes sense, it's just that I felt some of the joke was on me for watching. It's not often pleasant when a cynic is over cyniced by another cynic but credit due, Catfight is a special kind of something.
Django Kills Silently (AKA Django Kills Softly, Bill il taciturno)
Dir: Massimo Pupillo (credited as Max Hunter)
1967
***
Django Kills Silently, or Django Kills Softly if you'd prefer, is the 16th Django film to be made and the 15th of the unofficial sequels. There are 40+ Django films and I'd bet good money that more will be made in the future but it is safe to say that Django Kills Silently, or Django Kills Softly if you'd prefer, is about as average as the character's films get. George Eastman's Django however is far from average, he is by far the tallest the cult spaghetti western character has ever been. Eastman's (real name Luigi Montefiori) height led to quite a few problems in his early acting career and I'm not sure it does this version of Django any favours either, as it can be quite distracting at times. With all due respect, no one can match Franco Nero's Django, every other attempt just hasn't worked as well. Give me a George Eastman Italian horror over his Django films any day of the week. Django Kills Silently, or Django Kills Softly if you'd prefer, is pretty forgettable for the best part, with only a couple of standout scenes worth remembering. The climax is nothing new but it is satisfying, it's just a shame that it holds back such greatness until the very end. However, it's pretty fast-paced and snappy, it doesn't drag like some westerns can and it's satisfactorily violent. I think it is probably best to regard it as its own spaghetti western, rather than part of the Django series. Nearly every spaghetti western in the late 60s and early 70s stuck 'Django' in the title hoping to gain more recognition but it never really fooled anyone. Seasoned spaghetti western fans will see a lot of charm in it and would have seen so many terrible films that it will average out somewhat but for most there is little to no interest to be had here. I appreciate the rawness of the film and I think some of the performances are pretty good and I like the natural sounding dialogue but by and large it's forgettable.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Serpico
Dir: Sidney Lumet
1973
*****
It is astonishing now to think that Sidney Lumet started principle photography on his 1973's classic only twelve months after Serpico's resignation from the Police Force. Based on Peter Maas's biography of NYPD officer Frank Serpico, it tells of his twelve year undercover operation to expose corruption in the New York Police Department at the expense of his career, relationships and almost his life. It's the perfect neo-noir crime drama, a classic 70s masterpiece and one of Sidney Lumet's best. It was a huge success, owing to its faultless direction, the razor sharp script and Al Pacino's captivating performance. It was nominated for pretty much every award going that year. The NYPD were apparently very helpful, Sidney Lumet was assigned two officers to assist him while filming and when they found out that the film would be less glorified and more truthful and gritty, they couldn't be more happy to offer their help and share their experiences. Pacino played it method all the way, which I imagine must have been difficult, given that the film was filmed in reverse, so he could begin the filming with long hair and big beard and slowly cut it short until he was short back and sides and clean shaven. Even though the end of the film states that Serpico was in hiding, somewhere in Switzerland. The truth is that Serpico didn't care much for Swiss life and came back to New York soon after. After accepting the role, Al Pacino invited Serpico to live with him to understand his stance, copy his mannerisms and do the role justice. After the two became friends Serpico wanted to spend more time on set, to act as an adviser and to make sure everything was authentic but producer Martin Bregman had to 'hurt his feelings' as he put it and order him off the set as he believed his presents was too much of a distraction to the cast and crew. Lumet let the actors play their parts naturally and Pacino improvised a fair bit, especially in one particularly explosive scene whereby Serpico is told by his captain that the investigation is going to be aborted. Pacino is utterly convincing, in many films you can't help but only see the actor but not with Pacino, here he is most certainly Frank Serpico. It is impossible to see anyone else in the role, although bizarre as it sounds, Serpico was intended for Paul Newman and Robert Redford, following on from their success with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Redford was to be Serpico and Newman was going to be his lawyer friend David Durk (renamed Bob Blair in the finished film and played by Tony Roberts). As much as I love the two actors, I can't see it, it would have been a totally different film that wouldn't have done the story justice. Pacino knew Serpico, he lived and breathed the role. He later said that when asking Serpico why he did what he did, he answered "Well Al, I don't know. I guess I would have to say it would be...if I didn't, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?". I think I understand that, thanks to Pacino, who certainly knows what it means. Al Pacino has since said that he considers Serpico to be one of his greatest achievements as an actor and I agree one hundred percent, with maybe only his role in The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon coming close or breaking even. A masterpiece and one of the decades very best.