Newbie Wednesday – Harry Brown



Harry Brown (2009, dir. Daniel Barber)
Starring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Ben Drew, Jack O’Connell

In the States we call government housing The Projects, in the UK they have the Estates. This is setting of this bleak and tragic story of a man who is alone. The film doesn’t flinch from showing shocking acts of brutality and doesn’t raise up one figure as a champion over another. Harry does what he does, but why? The motives for the killing spree remain vague when you begin to examine things closely. Is it in retribution for his friend? Or is their something much darker going on?

Harry Brown, is ex-marine and pensioner living in the Estates. His wife is living in the hospital stuck in a catatonic state. He has one friend in the world, Leonard, whom he meets at the corner pub for a pint everyday. Leonard is fed up with the way drugs are sold openly and people like himself are harassed by the hoodlums that roam the estates. One morning, Harry wakes up to learn Leonard was found stabbed to death in a pedestrian tunnel. This seems to be the final straw for Harry and he embarks on a crusade to avenge his friend, killing young men where ever he goes.

The film eventually goes down a fairly predictable road with Harry’s action parallel by a police investigation about them. What is more interesting is all the subtext brought to the film, possibly not intentionally. There is a lot of work put into making the world Harry inhabits grimey and flithy and despicable. So we are naturally appalled by the various denizens he encounters. As an audience we are clearly set up to cheer for Harry and boo all those nasty villains (see Gran Torino). However, there is a moment near the end of the film where Harry asks a character to kill him. This immediately caused me to re-evaluate what had gone before. Here’s a man whose wife is gone and has just lost his best friend. He lashes out, presumably because he wants but he then wants to simply die at the end. His entire crusade was a nihilistic one. Harry lost all he loves and now he wants to explode, hitting what ever he can in his path.

If it wasn’t for Michael Caine this would have been a forgettable film. There is something about just his subtle looks that elevates the film. In one scene he sits across from a drug dealer whose girlfriend is overdosing on heroin. The slight glances and looks he makes around the room feed the audience tons of information. While Clint Eastwood seemed one note through Gran Torino, Caine delivers a multi-layered performance. Emily Mortimer is also wonderful as the detective in charge of Caine’s case. By the end, she’s the only virtuous character in the film. She has been devoted to her job and wants to solve the murders. However, we can see the world crumble around her.

Harry Brown definitely wants to be a lofty film, but its very much a continuation of the Death Wish premise. I admit there is some greater emotional depth here. The disappointment for me came from how undeveloped characters are. There is no motive for anyone save Harry and it left me feeling like the picture was very hollow.

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Asian Cinema Month – Eat Drink Man Woman

All this month, in honor of Asian Heritage Month, I will be looking at some major films from the contemporary Asian cinema canon. While the term “Asia” can refer to areas as diverse as the Middle East, India/Pakistan, and the South Pacific, I will be focusing mainly on films out of China, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. In the future I definitely plan on having a month devoted to Middle Eastern cinema….maybe not so much India, just not a fan of their pictures, too many crazy musicals.



Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, dir. Ang Lee)
Starring Sihung Lung, Kuei-Yei Yang, Chien-lien Wu, Yu-Wen Wang

Mealtime is a proven way of bonding with others. Whether its over a campfire, at a booth in a diner, or around the family dinner table, the act of breaking bread with others unites people in a very beautiful way. Even many animals hunt and dine together in packs, with somewhat of an understanding of the bonding that occurs when they do. Ang Lee presents the story of how food and the act of eating cobbles together a group of disparate people into a family.

The film is set in Taipei, Taiwan and focuses on Chu, the partiarch of a family made up of three daughters. Chu’s wife died years earlier and now his three daughters live at home with him, each feeling the burden of watching after their obstinate and independent father. Every Sunday, Chu prepares a lavish feast of traditional Chinese cuisine, much more than enough for this small group. Chu has also unofficially adopted his middle daughter’s old schoolmate and her daughter. As the story progresses, his three daughters begin to find men with whom they contemplate leaving home for. In many ways, this story is a variation of Fiddler on the Roof, very much about family and tradition.

I really liked this film, much more than I anticipated. I’ve been sort of back and forth with Ang Lee (didn’t care for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but love Brokeback Mountain) so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this picture. I think Lee is best when he is dealing with small, character driven stories. The family surrounding Chu are very complex and real. There are no easy solutions and no acts of serendipity. The high drama you would expect from a Hollywood version of this tale is non-existent, yet there are emotional stakes. Chu has lost his sense of taste and so the act of preparing this meal has a deeper meaning to it. The eldest daughter is also a wonderful chef, but no thanks to Chu. He makes sure the kitchen is off limits to his children, so she learned from Chu’s best friend and fellow chef when she was a child.

The way Lee films the cooking sequences is an example of a director at their peak. Everything about the methodical ways Chu prepares his dishes and the care he puts into them is absolutely apparent. The flavor of the dishes comes through the screen somehow and you can feel the steam coming off the dumplings and rich flavor of the stews and steamed fish. If you were putting together a list of films about food, this one definitely make it high on the list.

There honestly wasn’t much about this film I didn’t enjoy. It’s a little over two hours, yet I was so engaged by it I never felt like checking the timecode to see how much was left. I was completely absorbed in the world and especially the characters Lee was presenting. While he has gone on to make bigger budget films, my hope is that Lee can always remain close to his early roots, making films that found their wonder in people, rather than effects.

DocuMondays – Tales From the Script



Tales From the Script (2009, dir. Peter Hanson)
Featuring Allison Anders, John August, Shane Black, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, Frank Darabont, Antwone Fisher, Mick Garris, William Goldman, David Hayter, Zak Penn, Adam Rifkin, Jose Rivera, Paul Schrader, Guinevere Turner

The documentary opens with Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Deep Impact) talking about leaving the studio commissary with a group of executives and one of them telling him his script was the best thing he ever read. Months later, Rubin was in the same commissary, leaving behind the same executives with  new writer and heard them say his script was the best they ever read. This anecdote sets the tone of the rest of the documentary which isn’t so much about screen writing as it is about the relationship between writers and the studios. This relationship is one in which the writer wants to accepted and the studio wants to get that script out of his grubby little hands and make it the movie they want to see.

The film is made up of interviews with a wide swathe of writers from mid-century pictures up to those of the last decade. To frame the segments of the documentary, scenes from popular films that revolve around screenwriters are used (Barton Fink, The Muse). The result is a very inside baseball type film that is definitely never going to appeal to a large audience. To people working in the film industry and movie nerds like myself, the picture is fascinating glimpse into the trials and travails of the Hollywood screenwriter. We get to hear from veterans such as William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, The Princess Bride) and Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Affliction) as well as young, but equally prolific writers like David Hayter (X-Men, Watchmen) and John August (Big Fish, The Corpse Bride).

I found it very interesting to hear the voices and see the faces of screenwriters of films I was familiar with. I have to say, most of the films represented here were ones I don’t care for, particularly Bruce Almighty and Click, but the writers definitely fit your expectations of them. One of the most fascinating interviewees was Guinevere Turner. She started out scripting the indie lesbian romantic comedy Go Fish and went on to pen a draft of American Psycho. Turner tells the story of working with Uwe Boll on Bloodrayne and learning that he was letting the actors make edits to her script. While this would drive most writers insane, Turner says she told herself to take deep breaths and that she hated the movie anyway.

The film fails to be a helpful guide to novice writers which is a shame. Goldman has become a sort of god of screenwriting and has numerous books on the topic. There’s some interesting comments on the “postcontent” era of films which might be useful, but overall its just an interesting curio that shows us where films are born.

Hypothetical Film Festival – Best Horror Remakes Evrrrrrrrrrrr!

With the remake of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street there is yet another horror film being “re-imagined” in theaters. But remaking horror flicks has been a mainstream trend since the 1960s and Hammer Studios buying up the Universal monsters. Here’s a film festival devoted to movies I think are the best among horror remakes.



Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979, dir. Werner Herzog)
Starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz

Acclaimed German filmmaker Herzog decided to remake F.W. Murnau’s vampire film, believing it to be the best film ever produced by a German director. The original silent Nosferatu was made as a result of the inability to get the right to the Dracula novel. Murnau makes a few tweaks, such a dehumanizing the title vampire lord even more. When Herzog’s version came long Dracula was now in the public domain so he was able to absorb more elements of it into the story. Certain scenes are exact recreations of the original silent picture but Herzog also develops the title vampire’s personality further, causing him to become a sad, pathetic figure more than a completely menacing inhuman monster. Also, there are few actors who were as prepared to play a ghoul as Klaus Kinski.



The Thing (1981, dir. John Carpenter)
Starring Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur

The original The Thing From Another World (1951) was directed by genre jumping master filmmaker Howard Hawks and reflected a post-Hiroshima fear of science. Carpenter’s remake was much more faithful to the source novel and included the element of the alien’s ability to mimic the cellular structure and appearance of living matter. Kurt Russell plays a member of an Antarctic science crew who encounter a husky running loose and its Norwegian science expedition owners trying to kill it. They learn quickly that the dog is a microbacterial alien species bent on wiping out all life on earth to appease its evolutionary directive. The film has some of gnarliest special effects ever put to film and creates a pitch perfect tone of paranoia.




Little Shop of Horrors (1986, dir. Frank Oz)
Starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Levi Stubbs

Director/producer Roger Corman is known by the loving term of “shlockmeister”, meaning he makes cheap, exploitative genre pictures that have total cult followings. His 1960 flick The Little Shop of Horrors was turned in to a stage musical in the 1980s and that was how we got this wonderful horror-musical-comedy. Moranis is Seymour, a plant store employee who discovers a strange plant that feeds on blood and flesh. He’s able to satiate with pin prick from his finger until the creature grows larger and he must resort to murder. The picture balances the right level of black comedy with a satirical commentary on early 1960’s America. Ellen Green is definitely the musical highlight of the film, reprising her role on the stage as Audrey. The special effects for the evil man-eating plant Audrey II are also wonderful, particularly its final “adult” form.




Evil Dead II (1987, dir. Sam Raimi)
Starring Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi

In 1981, Sam Raimi released cult favorite The Evil Dead and it opened doors for him to work on some slightly higher budget crime pictures. As the 80s came to close he accrued enough funding to remake this first great film. I know I was confused when I started watching this and realized it functioned as both a remake and a sequel to the first picture. The events of the original movie are retold in the first 20 mins while a new parallel story involving archaeologists is introduced. But all you really need to know about this one is that it has Bruce Campbell in it. And he gets a chainsaw hand. I mean the entire Spider-Man trilogy has nothing on that. This picture ends on a cliffhanger that leads into 1993’s Army of Darkness.




The Ring (2002, dir. Gore Verbinski)
Starring Naomi Watts, Daveigh Chase, Brian Cox, Amber Tamblyn

This remake is much better than its 1998 Japanese original. Here the city and atmosphere of Seattle are used to perfection without ever naming the city or making a spectacle of its skyline. Instead, the soaked, rainy, bleak tone of the region underscores the looming horror. A videotape is passed around and comes with the warning that anyone who watches it will die seven days later. It ends up in the hands of a Ruth, a woman working in the media. She watches the tape and is now in a race against time to figure out the origins of this phenomenon and possibly how to stop it. The picture is full of incredibly disturbing imagery and is able to use CG effects without feeling like we’re staring at a green screen. It also has one of the best twist endings and earns every second of it. They rarely make horror this enjoyable these days.

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Blow Out



Blow Out (1981)
Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz

Alfred Hitchcock passed away in 1980 and with him ended De Palma’s rather blatant homage/ripoffs of his work. With Blow Out, De Palma attempted an American remake of Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blowup. The picture leans much more in the direction of the big Hollywood pictures De Palma would go on to make in the 1980s and 1990s, yet it also marks his move away from the psycho thriller. Here the murders going on are linked to political conspiracy, not a mentally disturbed individual working on their own, though the murderer is definitely mentally disturbed.

Set in Philadelphia during the 100th anniversary of the Liberty Bell’s last ringing, the film follows Jack (Travolta) a sound editor for B-horror/slash nudie pictures. Jack was once in the military and worked as a cop wiring informants to crack down on the mob. The end of his career came when one of the informants was caught and killed because Jack couldn’t get to him in time. One night as Jack is out at a local park recording some samples he sees and ends up recording the audio of a car accident. He rescues the girl inside, who is still alive, and finds the driver dead. Later, at the hospital he learns the driver was a presidential candidate and the police are very eager to make Jack and the girl, Sally (Allen) forget what they saw. Using the photos of a private eye, that happened to be at the park, and his own audio recordings, Jack makes his own film of the incident. What he discovers is that the car’s tire didn’t blow out as the police are claiming but that someone fired from the bushes and shot it out. However, there is a man (Lithgow) who has been hired to kill any and all witnesses to the incident.

The film is chock full of references to other pictures and while it is not one of de Palma’s best it still has those individual sequences that are amazingly put together. The opening of the film is a blatant reference to the popular slasher flicks of the time, in particular Halloween. One long take from the POV of a killer stalking a sorority is slowly zoomed out to reveal Jack and his employer working on the sound for their newest picture. The entire conspiracy set-up is a hodgepodge of real life historical assassination and plot elements from the mid-20th century. The film Jack puts together is a parallel to the Zapruder film. The car crash with the drowning girl inside a direct reference to Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. And the desperation of the powers that be to cover everything up is deeply linked to the still linger negative sentiments manifested by Watergate in the 1970s.

One of the best parts of the film is that de Palma keeps it simple. When dealing with political conspiracy it could be very easy for the story to spiral out of control as more twists and sinister figures are added. Instead we never really get the specifics of why this potential candidate was killed, we just keep focused on Jack and Sally and really only know as much as they do about what is going on. The cast is fairly small and its only Jack that we learn any real background about. The mysterious hired killer played by John Lithgow is given all the character development we need. His precision and adherence to duty hint at his past as a military man or a member of the CIA but we never need that spelled out to us. There’s no great speech at the end either where everything is spelled out to make sure the audience got it. De Palma seems to trust our intelligence that we picked up on the things he was saying.

While not my favorite of what I’ve seen so far, Blow Out is definitely one of the tightest, leanest pictures of De Palma’s. He delivers just enough of every element that it never sags in the middle. It’s definitely not something you haven’t seen before in terms of the plot but its those elements that have been retread presented by a master filmmaker. It’s also a perfect example of how to remake a film without copying it beat for beat. De Palma takes the almost wordless Blowup, where the murder is kept completely obscured and vague, and makes a truly American version that reflected the current mood towards the upper echelons of power at the time.

Shadows in the Cave Digest #04 – April 2010

Features
Charlie Chaplin Month
Part I – The Life and Times of a Tramp
Part II – The Women
The Kid
A Woman in Paris
The Circus
The Great Dictator
Limelight
Other Films

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma –
Carrie
Sisters
Obsessed
Dressed to Kill

Hypothetical Film Festivals
Ernest Saves The Film Festival
80s Comedies for Grown Ups
Working Class Heroes

Reviews

DocuMondays
Kurt and Courtney
The Nomi Song
Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth
Dirt! The Movie

Wild Card Tuesdays
Eve’s Bayou
Dead Silence
Last Days of Disco
Nightmare on Elm Street

Newbie Wednesday
How To Train Your Dragon
Clash of the Titans
Kick Ass
The Imaginarum of Doctor Parnassus

Import Fridays
MicMacs
Mother (Movie of the Month!)
Lilya 4-Ever
The Lives of Others

Next Month: 
Asian Cinema Month!
Orson Welles!
Movie Musings!
And a very special birthday surprise!

Charlie Chaplin Month – Limelight



Limelight (1952)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Nigel Bruce, Buster Keaton, Norman Lloyd, Sydney Earle Chaplin

During Chaplin’s trip to Europe to promote this film, he had his re-entry to the Unites States revoked (he always legally remained a British citizen). It was the height of Red Panic at the time in the US and Chaplin had never been shy about voicing his personal opinions on the treatment of the working class. Chaplin’s long standing tensions with J. Edgar Hoover led to his re-entry papers being revoked and he decided to set up his home in Switzerland. This would be where he would live for the rest of his days and this film (while not his last) would stand as his symbolic goodbye to cinema.

It’s 1914,  and Calvero (Chaplin) is a former performer on the East End stages. He now comes home drunk out of his mind in the middle of the day, slowly weathering away in his flat. One afternoon he returns and finds his downstairs neighbor, Teri (Bloom) unconscious holding a bottle of pills and letting gas from her stove fill her apartment. He saves her life and afterwards learns she became suicidal when her dreams of performing ballet were slowly crushed. Calvero nurses her back to health as she suffers from psychosomatic paralysis. Eventually, she regains her confidence and becomes the prima ballerina of a great company. Teri meets and falls in love with composer Neville (played by Chaplin’s own son, Sydney Earle). She goes onto secure a part for Calvero in the show as a clown and he eventually gets his own showcase which is to be his final, great performance.

1914 is an incredibly significant year in the life of Chaplin. It was in that year he made a small appearance in the Keystone short Kid Auto Races at Venice. The character he played was called The Little Tramp. The birth of one of the most iconic film characters means the death of the stage variety that brought Chaplin up. As Calvero he recognizes both the twilight of his own career and how his rise to fame was responsible for the end of many East End performers’ careers. It’s made even more significant that Buster Keaton plays Calvero’s old partner who joins him in the final stage performance. Here we have the two men who birthed cinematic comedy taking one last bow in an era that no longer had room for their style.

Despite the symbolic significance of much of the film it is still a very self-indulgent picture. Chaplin made his film’s independently meaning he got to make final cut. Limelight clocks in at 2 hours, 11 minutes and it is a real stretch. Much like The Great Dictator, another over 2 hour picture, the middle sections sag painfully. The bits Chaplin performs are never all that funny either. The two man piece he does with Keaton at the end of the film is pretty decent but never lives up to his old films.