Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – The Untouchables

The Untouchables (1987, dir. Brian de Palma)
Starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert DeNiro, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith, Patricia Clarkson, Billy Drago

If someone told me Sisters and Carrie were made by the same director, it would sound plausible. If someone told me Carrie and The Untouchables were made by the same director I would definitely question the validity of that statement. At this point in his career, this was de Palma’s most “Hollywood” film. Its based on actual events, though highly dramatized for the screen and has the sort of “sweeping” nature you expect from movies vying for an Oscar nod. The story is an interesting one and de Palma is allowed to use some of his cinematographic trademarks along the way.

It’s the height of Prohibition in Chicago and one man runs the bootlegging industry, Al Capone (DeNiro). His men use violence and murder to enforce their control, with many innocents caught in the middle. Special Agent Elliot Ness (Costner) is sent in to work against the flow of police corruption and find that piece of evidence needed to bring Capone down. Along the way he recruits an accountant, a police academy rookie, and veteran beat cop Malone (Connery). These men are untouchable, free from the briberies and intimidation tactics of the mob. As they get closer and closer to finding the witness and evidence they need the violence rises and many of them won’t make it to see the end.

All the names associated with this film make you think it would be a dynamic and interesting look at the fall of Capone. You have de Palma directing, David Mamet on the script, and a cast of talented actors. However, the film is utterly dull. In particular, the acting of Kevin Costner is like cardboard here. He makes Ness into one of the flattest, uncharismatic crime fighters I’ve seen in a movie. Not once did I feel energized or inspired by anything he had to say to his men. I half expected a shot of the officers gathered to work under him half asleep as he droned on. On the other hand, I feel like there’s very little direction being given to the actors and there is obviously not much good in the screenplay.

Where the film is interesting is when de Palma is allowed to play with how the camera tells the story. There is his typical first person shot, used during a very crucial scene involving Malone. There’s also the use of deep focus during an opera scene and some moderately interesting tracking shots. For the most part though, the movie seems devoid of life, which is a shock when it employs such a dynamic director like de Palma. The majority of the work seems to have been put into production design. 1930s Chicago is reproduced with pristine accuracy and costume design was overseen by Armani. The film’s score is also handled by the always amazing Ennio Morricone. It just would have been nice to see a film where everyone was allowed to bring their A game.


Asian Cinema Month – Hard Boiled

Hard Boiled (1992, dir. John Woo)
Starring Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung

A man leaps through the air in slow motion, wielding twin semi-automatic pistols. Carnage ensues. This is the trademark of Hong Kong action director John Woo, who managed to pretty much invent his own sub-genre of action movies. These are stories where black and white are clearly defined, heroes are wise-cracking bad asses, and the villains are most definitely villainous. This was my first foray into the world of Woo, I skipped his Mission: Impossible sequel and shied away from Face/Off. So, after twenty years of hype, how did I find the master actioneer?

Hard Boiled is the tale of two men. Officer “Tequila” Yuen is a cop dedicated to bringing down the Triad gun running ring plaguing Hong Kong. Tony is a cop deep undercover who is the apple of crimeboss Hoi’s eye. Tony is recruited by upstart gangster Johnny Wong to take out Hoi and control crime in the city. Tequila and Tony end up reluctant partners in a crusade to bring Wong to justice. Along the way they form a rivalry over the same woman and end up indebted to each other. Also thrown into the mix is Mad Dog, Johnny Wong’s super hitman with a clear sense of honor in his profession.

Hard Boiled has an interesting problem. Barry Wong, the screenwriter died halfway through film, while he was still writing the screenplay. So Woo and his production staff had to cobble together some place for the film to go. Knowing this, it makes up somewhat for the rather random directions the picture goes in its latter half. There’s also the fact that the character of Tony started out as an incredibly sociopathic character, going so far as to poison baby’s milk. The actor wasn’t too comfortable with playing a character like that and convinced Woo to make him more likable. Alongside this is a very uneven love story between Tequila and fellow officer.

What the film does well is the way it tells its story. Woo is amazing when it comes to framing shots and setting up elaborate sequences that turn normally dull shoot outs into ballet performances. Several times Woo chooses to drop the typical camera shots and go into first person or into some unexpected tracking shot that slowly reveals information to us. He’s also influenced greatly by some unexpected sources, in particular Francois Truffat. If you’ve seen The 400 Blows, than you will recognize that same ending zoom in, freeze frame technique used here a handful of times. It surprisingly works and its impressive that Woo was thinking about such “arty” fare when composing a Hong Kong crime movie. Like I said before, Woo was inventing his own genre at this point in his career.

It’s nothing spectacular. The weak story definitely hurt the film, but there are a number of interesting set pieces, in particular a mob-owned hospital the last half of the film takes place in. The film make use of practical special effects via explosions in way CG just can’t ever mimic. A fun film that hearkens back to an era of uber violent and gaudy over the top crime movies.

The Summer Blockbuster: 1975 – 1985

It began with a great white shark.

It wasn’t until the mid-70s that the concept of summer being a time to release big budget, special effects driven pictures came into the zeitgeist. Looking at the current wave of summer movies, its easy to see that science fiction and fantasy dominate, but back in the 1950s and 1960s the majority of these genre films were low budget and full of poor acting. The novel Jaws by Peter Benchley was purchased by Universal in 1973 and went through two directors before the studio settled on the relatively green Steven Spielberg. Universal’s first choice had been John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) and then Dick Richards, who was fired after continually referring the shark as “the whale”.

To Universal, Jaws was going to be a successful film, but they never expected to be as huge a hit as it became. On June 20th, 1975 the picture was released nationwide, meaning it opened in Los Angeles and New York as well as smaller venues across the country. In the past, a film would open in a larger market and slowly spread across the country. Many film historians see this business move as the one that ensured Jaws‘ success. Up to this point the late 1960s and early 1970s had been dominated by artist driven pictures, and the studios had given up the reigns to young and headstrong young directors with a vision. Directors like Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) and Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude) had been the kind of filmmakers producing studio pictures, something very unlikely even today. In many ways, by using Spielberg, a contemporary of these young directors, but saddling him with a very studio controlled and non-character driven film, the studios were attempting to reassert their control. But the success of Jaws was nothing compared to Star Wars‘ release two years later.

There’s not much to say about Star Wars that isn’t well-known already. George Lucas, after establishing himself with American Graffiti and THX-1138, released his science fiction epic using the tropes of the serialized films of his childhood. Unlike Jaws, Lucas didn’t have a plethora of studio support behind his film and clashed with his crew, who were veterans of the film industry while Lucas was seen as an upstart. After missing its Christmas 1976 release, 20th Century Fox moved it to May 1977. Early director’s cuts were screened for Lucas’ friends, including Brian de Palma and Steven Spielberg and their reactions were disappointing. Every thing seemed to be pointing at Star Wars being a colossal failure. Lucas finally screened the picture to 20th Century Fox executives and was shocked. They loved it. One executive admitted to crying during the film at how beautiful it was, and Lucas was completely blown away from getting studio approval on a film for the first time in his career.

However, instead of becoming a studio lackey, Lucas began to build his own quiet corner of the film industry and cleverly established production facilities for sound and other technical aspects of film to create a financial safety net.  Filming for The Empire Strikes Back began in 1979, with Lucas letting Lawrence Kasdan direct while Lucas supervised as producer. While the budget for Star Wars has been $11 million ($3 million over budget), Empire had a pool of $18.5 which, after a studio fire, became $22 million. Lucas always seemed to be struggling with the limitations of the contemporary technology to realize his vision. It can be seen in the concept art of Ralph McQuarrie, that Lucas wanted to make something so expansive and ground breaking. It wouldn’t be till 1999’s The Phantom Menace that he got his wish, while audiences felt the heart of the series was lost amidst masturbatory world building.

For most of the 1970s and 80s, Spielberg and Lucas dominated the summer movie. Spielberg went on to give us Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. He then teamed with Lucas to create the Indiana Jones franchise, a film series that seemed to up the ante in terms of character based blockbusters. Harrison Ford has said in interviews that he is always much more eager to play Indiana Jones again, than Han Solo. With Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Hollywood underwent a change that would shape the industry for decades to come. The level of violence in Temple challenged the MPAA’s standards and Spielberg desperately didn’t want the film to be slapped with the death sentence of an R rating. These Spielberg/Lucas films depended greatly on the viewer-ship of young audiences, particularly for the merchandising tie-ins. As a compromise, the MPAA invented the rating of PG-13.

One year after Temple, Spielberg released the Robert Zemeckis-directed Back to the Future, a film that combined special effects driven sci fi with the teen comedy. The film proved that you didn’t have to have Spielberg or Lucas directing a film to make it a huge success. Both Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale were terrified that the film had not lived up to their vision and figured it would bomb. Audiences went crazy for it however, and critic Roger Ebert pointed out that at its core it shared a lot of thematic similarities with the beloved It’s A Wonderful Life. As we entered into the mid-80s, Lucas began to fade from the scene as a director and Spielberg would continue to top the grossing-lists. However, there were now a group of directors moving in to prove their own ability to pull audiences in.

Next: 1986 – 1995: Gump, Disney, and Ahnold.

Jolly Good Thursdays – I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle (2003, dir. Tim Fywell)
Starring Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, Henry Thomas, Marc Blucas, Bill Nighy

This is not the sort of story you would expect from Dodie Smith, the same author behind 101 Dalmatians. Instead of a tale aimed towards the younger set, this is a coming of age story set in the mid-1930s. Themes of wealth and love and how the two are intertwined make up the spine of the picture and, what might have been a trite film, is aided by great performances to become something quite a bit better than that. The picture manages to be both an escapist romance and a grounding story of how much love can hurt.

The film opens with the Mortmains’ arrival at an old castle where their author patriarch has relocated them. The events are narrated by middle child Cassandra (Garai), who is overshadowed by their father’s second wife Topaz and Cassandra’s older sister, Rose (Byrne). The castle, which was a magical place when they first came to live there, has become a dank and moldy tomb for the family. Things begin to change when the owners of the castle, American brothers Simon and Neil Cotton arrive to decide what they are going to do with the estate. Rose sees this as her opportunity to marry into money and tries to woo Simon, the elder brother. However, Cassandra is also smitten with Simon and Neil has feelings for Rose.

The Mortmain family is incredibly eccentric and director Fywell is tasked with finding humor in their quirks as well as showing they have consequences. This is particularly highlighted through Mr. Mortmain, a successful author when his family was young, but who has failed to be able to write anything of value since. At first his hang ups and odd behavior come across light, but as the film progresses we see the detrimental effect that have on his entire family. Cassandra is also forced to face the fact that her father’s mental state may be beyond help. That’s quite a heavy weight for our plucky 16 year old protagonist to handle. In a similar fashion, Rose’s vapidity and desperation to find a man are played for laughs at the start, but when she enters into a relationship with a man she doesn’t actually love we can see how a harmless quirk becomes destructive to many people.

The film is not a major cinematic achievement by any means, but it is a very solid and well paced story about eccentric people having to deal with how their behavior effects others. The story is a very mature one, that lets the characters lose themselves in the giddiness of a first love, but also grounds them by not having everything tied up in a neat package. There is hurt and not much closure for our protagonists. In many ways this is a more adult Nicolas Sparks tale, that refrains from maudlin sentiment and allows its characters to have real flaws.

Newbie Wednesday – Daybreakers

Daybreakers (2009, dir. The Spierig Brothers)
Starring Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe

Vampires are on the brain of many a Hollywood screenwriter these days. From the Twilight franchise to CW teen drama The Vampire Diaries, the sanguine are a hot commodity. The vampire is one of those monsters that seems to have a couple different interpretations. You have the elegant sex object popularized by Dracula and the Anne Rice novels, you have the eerily inhuman humanoid seen in the classic Nosferatu, and then occasional we see a completely bestial form. What’s interesting about Daybreakers is that it touches on each of these forms; and while the film is high concept, does it live up to the ideas it presents?

In a world where humans were overtaken by vampirism about a decade earlier, humans are becoming extinct and without a steady blood supply, the vampires are experiencing a secondary mutation. The blood deprived vampires end up feeding on each other, poisoning their systems and becoming more animal than human. Edward Dalton (Hawke) is a corporate hematologist seeking to synthesize a blood substitute and tests are less than successful. He’s overseen by his intimidating boss (Neill) and army grunt brother. Eventually, Dalton crosses paths with the human resistance movement and their leader, Elvis (Dafoe). Elvis was once a vampire but through a random circumstance he reverted back to human. Dalton sets out to figure out why and see if he can cure humanity once and for all.

The film is chock full of amazing ideas. Life is lived at night or in a series of interconnected tunnels beneath the city where there are copious little cafes or newspaper stands. Life is fairly similar to our own, except for the whole needing to feed on blood part. It was also refreshing that there would be select vampires who retained empathy that outweighed their biological needs to feed. There’s even a senator featured on a news program whose big issue is humanity rights and wants to remove humans from being used a cattle. The cinematography is also very clean and sharp. The directors definitely know how to set up a stylistic shot and their previous special effects works comes through.

On the flip side, the actual story of the film is complete and total mess. The transformation of Dafoe’s character never gets a comprehensible explanation and seems to be boiled down to wrapping yourself in a wet blanket and being exposed to sunlight, literally. This is the elusive cure for vampirism. The twists and turns the plots takes are either incredibly forced with no real reason behind them or simply an excuse to show people being torn limb from limb. Its apparent early on that the actors in this film are better than the material they are working with, and they most definitely don’t raise it beyond its mediocrity.

Asian Cinema Month – My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, is mainly concerned with the rural and natural settings of Japan, rather than bustling metropolises. He can go very dark with this message (Princess Mononoke) or light (Ponyo), but he always returns to the ideas of children in an environment populated with copious vegetation and mystic animals. Once again, the children of the story need the help of a being from the forest to overcome the troubles of their lives and its all told in the type of lush animation you expect from Miyazaki.

Satsuki and Mei have just moved to a country house with their father to be close to the hospital their mother is staying in. The first day in the new home they are enthusiastic to explore, and encounter soot spirits, ashy ghosts that skitter away into holes in the wall when light enters. Little Mei explores further while her older sister is at school and follows a couple of magical rabbit-like creatures into the forest where she meets a gigantic sleeping furry beast. The creature identifies himself with a series of yawns which Mei hears as “Totoro”, the name she assigns him. The two girls eventually deal with a crisis moment involving their mother’s health and Totoro comes to the rescue to help diffuse the pain they feel with some lighthearted fun.

What I liked about the film was its rejection of the American fantasy formula. The drama here is kept very minimal and in the background. An adult audience is going to understand the mother’s condition as being a dark point in the picture, but it is presented in such a way that it won’t upset younger viewers. Miyazaki is able to tell stories for children, and adults not yet swallowed up by cynicism, in a way better than Disney ever has. The Disney films never feel like a real world, merely a construct and complete fantasy. Miyazaki infuses his worlds with details that make it feel like a place that could really be out there. They are the type of simple fantasies a child would truly dream up.

There is no need for princesses in Totoro. These are real little girls, captivated with simple things and vulnerable when it comes to the idea they might lose a parent. The creatures are never frightening and the children rush into the unknown without a sense of fear. It’s incredibly refreshing to see this kind of animated film, a style we see little of in the States.

DocuMondays – loudQUIETloud

loudQUIETloud (2006, dir. Steven Cantor, Matthew Galkin)
Featuring The Pixies (Charles Thompson, Kim Deal, David Lovering, Joey Santiago)

Kelly Deal, sister of Pixies’ bassist Kim Deal, sums up the nature of the band in very simple terms. She tells her sister, “You are four of the worst communicators I have ever seen!” And she is most definitely correct in this summation of the group. Throughout their 2004 Pixies Sell Out tour, the bandmates communicate with each other the barest minimum, retreating into their individual solo projects when not on stage in front of fans. What the documentary confirms is that there is no new Pixies material coming any time soon, and that the band simply got back together because, like most of us, they have bills to pay.

The Pixies were formed in the late 80s and fell apart in the early 90s, particularly from in-fighting between Charles Thompson and Kim Deal. As the film opens, Deal has recently come off a rehab stint for alcoholism and is accompanied by Kelly on the tour. They travel in a separate buses from the guys in the band because Kim must stay away from alcohol. Drummer David Lovering is also dealing with issues of substance abuse, though he hasn’t come to that realization. The rest of the band is visibly uncomfortable in his presence and eventually confront him about his constant cocktail of booze and Valium. The film is a meditation on what happens when a group of people who produce great art end up absolutely hating each other.

The most telling aspect of the picture is Kim Deal and her sister in this separate bus, following the guys. Even on the guys’ bus, Charles is caught up in negotiation a switch to a new recording label, Joey is working on the soundtrack for his documentary film, and David is unnatural chipper from the drugs in his system. These were the twentysomethings of the 1990s, now in their late thirties and completely self absorbed. Kim plucks away on demos for the new Breeders album, writing songs for it, never once thinking about new songs for the Pixies. At one point a reporter from Rolling Stone interviews Charles and asks about new material. Charles says he’s been keeping his solo demos around and letting the band hear them to hint about getting some new stuff together, but from seeing the rest of the film he seems disinterested, and often times annoyed to work with these people.

It’s interesting to see the enthusiasm of the high school and college aged fans who became aware of the Pixies years after the band fell apart. In their eyes the Pixies are a single unit and unreal. One girl brings a sign reading “Kim Deal is God”. She manages to slip Kim a copy of Brave New Girl, a novel whose protagonist is an obsessive fan of the Pixies. The camera is on Kim later in her bus as she thumbs through the book. Her reaction is one of distress, she quickly puts the book down and lights a cigarette. These people are simply that, people. Nothing more. They are in the middle of divorces, struggling with addictions, and trying to get by.