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Archive for May, 2009

public enemiesWhat is the big summer film that you are really looking forward to?  Transformers 2, Angels and Demons or Terminator Salvation?  For me it is Public Enemies for three reasons: 

 

 

  1. Michael Mann films are always good 
  2. There is something about Johny Depp that makes me wonder about his sanity but he is always watchable 
  3. The trailer just makes the film look so fucking cool! 

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thiefSeriously if the film is one tenth as good as the trailer I will be happy (really bad films can look good in a trailer!) it looks like the Arthur Penn classic Bonnie and Clyde with Michael Mann style.  That has to be good! This has made me look back over Michael Mann Films, a director who has never made a bad film.  We are not looking at his masterpiece Heat but going back to the start, Thief.  Before Manhunter (the first and still the best Hannibal Lecter film) even before Miami Vice Michael Mann wrote, produced and directed Thief the story of a master safecracker. 

thief tuesday weldAn almost forgotten film from 1981 staring James Cann and Tuesday Weld.  Cann is a safecracker at the top of his game.  He only does the jobs he wants to do; he works with his own people and only steels diamonds or cash.  His wife has recently left him but he has met someone else (the criminally underused Tuesday Weld). Things go wrong when a local organised crime boss wants him to work for him.  This brings him onto the radar of the local corrupt police and threatens all he has built.  The film introduces some themes that reoccur in Michael Mann films and TV work.  James Cann is a likeable criminal a bit like Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in Heat.  They are both prepared to walk away from all they have.  As a bank robber McCauley is far more violent but there are certainly similarities. 

Don’t expect anything as polished as his recent work but this early Michael Mann is well worth a look

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AwaydaysI don’t get football hooligans.  I am an avid football supporter but got into the game in the late 80’s after most of the violence had been stamped out.  There seems to be a certain nostalgia growing for it in the media, I have seen three films in recent years on the subject.  First came The Football Factory directed by Nick Love who has another film on the subject called The Firm coming out next year.  Then came Green Street (known as Hooligans or Green Street Hooligans in America) this introduced a new element to the story basing it around an American who had no prior knowledge of football violence.  Then the most recent that I saw just last night Awaydays.  The film is set in an undisclosed The Packlocation in the Liverpool/Wirral area in 1979 and is about a small gang of hooligans “The Pack” who follow an undisclosed team. The two main characters are Carty middle class art school dropout whose mother has recently died and who is desperate to get in with The Pack.  And Elvis a member of the gang who envies Carty’s more privileged background and friends in the local music scene.  He claims to not be interested in the hooligan scene any longer but still seems to get a thrill out of it.

elvis and cartyThe big problem with Awaydays is that it offers no real explanation as to why these people do what they do.  As a person who can see no enjoyment in hurting people of even worse them hurting me I just don’t get it!  And that is what these films should be doing they should be telling me why these characters are motivated to do what they do.  If they don’t know why they do that would be equally as valid in the context of the film but to not say anything just leaves a gaping hole for me.  I have read and heard things about the film saying that it is about unemployment and the early days of Thatcher’s Britton but none of those things comes across in the film.  I think that there is a fear that explaining their motivation could be interpreted as an attempt to validate what they do.  But by not explaining the motivation makes it seem like it is a normal everyday thing.  This is demonstrated by the characters particularly Elvis who says he doesn’t want to do it any more but never says it is wrong to do it.  Although the film is fictional we all know that fights like these used to happen on a regular basis so the film will be looked back upon as a representation of what happened and more importantly what we felt about them, that is why the film needs to explain the motivation of its characters.  And to clarify my prospective I am not the next Mary Whitehouse who apposes violence in films.  Two of my favourite films of recent years are Oldboy and Fight Club films that are both completely fictional so absolved of some of the responsibility of films based around historical events but also films that clearly demonstrate the motivation of the characters.

The casual lookThe film isn’t without merit it is well acted and the photography captures a grim moody location/time.  The music is of the era and fits well as do the costumes.  The film will no doubt help fuel the retro frenzy for “the casual look”.  The coming of age storyline and the issues faced by one of the characters (I won’t give the plot away) are well played out as is the juxtaposition between the characters on their “awaydays” and in normal life.  It is however presented in an aspect ratio far to narrow for cinema making it look like it belongs on TV.  This is no doubt where a lot of people will see it when the DVD comes out.  I would suspect a lot of the audience are below the 18 years of age required to see the film in the cinema.  Don’t go any see this film expecting any answers or explanations about football hooligans or even to see anything new and you may enjoy it.

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pretty poison posterOn the surface Pretty Poison is a very straightforward film.  Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) has just go out of an institution where he has been held for many years after causing a fire that killed his aunt.  On release he disappears of the radar of his case worker and befriends, then starts a relationship with Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld) with the benefit of a story he has concocted about working for the CIA.  

Pitt has a vivid imagination and plays out elaborate fantasies, comparisons to Billy Liar are obvious if a little stretched.  It is never explored or explained how much of what he says he believes and how much is said for the benefit of others.  Sue Ann is only too happy to get involved with his stories of working for the CIA and his secret mission.  As their relationship develops it becomes less clear who is playing who and what their agenda is. 

pretty poison tuesday weldWeld gives an absolutely towering performance as a character who starts off appearing to be sweet innocent and a little dumb.  As the film goes on we find out she is none of these things.  Pitt is also played to perfection by Perkins.  He was never able to rise above his most famous role, Norman Bates in Psycho.  In pretty poison he plays to that with his character full of nerves and energy and clearly unhinged personality.  That’s what makes the film so interesting.  For all his problems and flaws Pitt is the moral backbone to the story.  He is the character who doesn’t actually want to do anybody any harm. 

Beverly Garland (who at the time the film was made she had been a star of B movies and TV for nearly twenty years) relishes the small but important role as Sue Ann’s mother.  It is a shame she wasn’t used more as her interactions with Weld and Perkins are excellent.  

pretty poison weld and perkinsThe film isn’t perfect.  Although the casting is spot on based on the performances they give the two leads are just a little too old.  Weld was 25 and had already stared in the Cincinnati Kid three years earlier.  Perkins was nearly 11 years older.  Her character was supposed to be 17, although his age isn’t mentioned I took it to be mid twenties at the oldest.  The photography is also nothing special it has an almost television feel to it that lacks dynamism.  It doesn’t play with prospective and angles to unnerve the viewer the way great directors like Hitchcock did in Psycho.  The pacing of the film is very good but the but there sense of time and space is a little askew.  There is one scene where Pitt goes into work and you suddenly realise only a few days have passed when you think it should be longer.  Then the timescale is confirmed in a line of clunky dialogue.  It works the other way earlier in the film a line of dialogue tells us a year has passed, this also comes as a surprise.  

Minor grumbles aside this is an unusual and actually quite disturbing film that isn’t that widely known.  Going back to the Hitchcock reference, he liked to play on peoples fears of what was hiding in the darkness.  In this film Noel Black (a director I know almost nothing about) doesn’t need the shadows the most shocking things are hidden in plain sight and in daylight.  A theme that fans of directors like David Lynch films will appreciate.  A film worth seeing if only for its two stars approaching their best; one who could never escape his most famous role and the other who was never given that perfect part she deserved.

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I have been obsessed with movies since I was a kid and I watch lots of films so it came as a surprise to me when I realised I had never seen Bad Day at Black Rock.  When I spotted the film was on TV (TCM I think) the same day that Ernest Borgnine was interviewed on my local radio station I had to watch it. 

black1Based on the short story Bad Day at Hondo by Howard Breslin the film is basically a western set in 1945.  It starts with some stunning shots of a train cutting through a desert landscape before stopping in the town of Black Rock.  We find that it is the first time the train has stopped at this town in four years.  Only one person gets of the train, one armed war veteran John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy).  You can tell immediately something is wrong with this town whose people are suspicious of strangers.  It gets worse when Macreedy mentions the name Komoko a local Japanese-American farmer who the locals claim not to have seen since he was sent to an internment camp at the start of the war.  

black3As the film unfolds Macreedy proves unflappable and you can just tell something is brewing under the surface.  Komoko’s fate is gradually revealed as the town’s people plot their next move but will some of them make a moral stand?  The film works as a moral fable the crux being what happens when people don’t stand up for what’s right but it is also about redemption.  The town and its people need to find redemption and Macreedy has to find something to live for following the loss of the use of his arm during the war.  There is also a strong message about intolerance that still rings true.  On a more basic level it is a taut and enjoyable thriller with a fantastic cast including Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis (probably best known for Forbidden Planet), Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin.  At approximately 80 minutes it is a relatively short film but well worth a look, it’s themes are still relevant more than fifty years on and are still used in modern films.  As a final note of trivia, according to IMDB it is one of the most frequently shown films in the screening room of The White House.

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the hunting partyA satirical drama with a powerful message based on the Esquire article by Scott K. Anderson. The film starts with the quote “Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true” this is followed by a pre credit prologue that introduces the two main characters. Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) a brilliant but flawed journalist who has an emotional breakdown on live TV and Duck (Terrence Howard) his cameraman who also gives the voiceover. All this happens while the two are covering wars in various parts of the world but most notably Bosnia.

gere and howard the hunting partyJump forward five years the war is over but the most wanted war criminal known as The Fox is still at large despite a five million dollar bounty on his head. Hunt convinces his former cameraman to help him track down the war cranial. Eventually he agrees and is joined by young naive journalist Benjamin Strauss (Jesse Eisenberg). As they follow a lead and go looking for The Fox Hunt reveals he is looking for more than just an interview. Things are confused even further when they are mistaken for a CIA hit squad.

The film is fantastically acted (particularly by the underrated Terrence Howard) and beautifully shot. Its message is very political and one sided but is portrayed with enough power to make me want to look further into the situation.

the hunting party gereThe film finishes with an explanation that film is based on real people (five journalists not three) and that there are still war criminals who have not been found and says:

“In theory, the hunt for war criminals in Bosnia continues to this day…

However, the two most wanted men – Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mfadic – continue to elude the U.S., The United Nations, The European Union, NATO, The Hague and all in the civilized world who claim to be looking for them.

In the ten years that Radovan Karadzic has been on the run, he has published two books and one play.

Perhaps if the International Community opened a summerstock theatre…

…But they‘re probably too busy “searching“ for Osama Bin Laden.”

As a work of fiction this is an enjoyable if often disturbing film. If the events portrayed are indeed true it only adds to the power of the film that amazingly failed to get a UK cinema release. Look out for a cameo from Diane Kruger.

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Born in the mid 70’s and growing up in the 80’s I was a huge Star Wars fan (I still have some of the toys in my loft) so it would come as a surprise to many people who know me that I am suggesting American Graffiti could be Lucas’s best film. It is probably considered fashionable at the moment to knock the Star Wars prequels and declare THX 1138 his best film (that I am also a fan of by the way) but there is a simple purity to American Graffiti.

American Graffiti 1 richard drayfussSo what’s it all about? Two friends Steve (Ron Howard – pre Happy Days) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) spend the night cruising around their hometown the night before they are due to go to college. They both have doubts about their futures. The film is also peppered with other characters. John Milner (Paul Le Mat) drives a ’32 Ford hot rod and is the man to beat in American Graffiti candy clarktown. He ends up as “chauffer” to a young girl while being Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) is looking for him to race (driving the 55’ Chevy from Two-Lane Blacktop). Terry “Toad” (Charlie Martin Smith) gets himself in trouble when he borrows Steve’s car and picks up Deb (Candy Clark). While this is going on Steve’s is having problems with his girlfriend Laurie(Cindy Williams) (who is also Curt’s sister) when he suggests they see American Graffiti 2other people while he is away at college. Curt gets mixed up with a gang calling themselves The Pharaohs while searching town for a beautiful and mysterious blond driving a Ford T-Bird. All this is done to a great rock & roll soundtrack courtesy of local DJ Wolfman Jack (playing himself).

So why is the film so good? Put simply the film is real. Although the film is fictional it is based on George American Graffiti milnerLucas’s real experiences of cruising in 1960’s Modesto California and has been suggested some of the characters are based on him. Cruising was dying out in the 70’s and there was a certain amount of nostalgia for it. It had been an important part of the lives of kids in America during an important transitional time in their lives. As kids could get driving licenses a lot younger than they could get into bars it was a social thing. He even used Wolfman Jack a real DJ of the time to play himself.

The soundtrack is made up almost entirely of existing songs slotted in appropriately in place of a conventional score. This had previously been done in Easy Rider but was still a new concept. It was accomplished by offering the music companies a flat fee deal to use there music. It allowed them access to a huge number of songs at a reduced rate although over 10% of the films total budget went on music licensing. The downside was that they failed to do a deal with RCA so there is no Elvis in the film but there is lots of great must including: Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Del Shannon, The Big Bopper and The Platters.

American Graffiti mels drive inShot in just under a month in and around San Francisco including San Rafael and Petaluma. One of the most famous sets was Mel’s Drive-in restaurant on the corner of South Van Ness Avenue & Mission Street. It was closed down at the time and was demolished shortly after production. Shot using Tachniscope that had proved so successful on Two-Lane Blacktop this kept the cost down as well as giving the film a great documentary look to it. The budget was a mere $775,000 rising to around a quarter million including marketing to date it has made more than a hundred and fifty times that (over $200million) making it one of the most profitable productions ever. Set in 1962 just ten years before it was made but a lot had changed in the world in that time. The Vietnam War was on the way and it was a time before the assignation of JFK, the Beatles, the moon landings and the summer of love. So much was going to happen some good some bad in the next few years for the characters of the film. Even if the events of the film don’t change their lives the decisions they make will affect their place in the world for years to come. The date is never mentioned in the film but the tag line was: “Where were you in ’62?”

For many the cars where the stars of the film, there where approximately 300 used including:

bob falfa 55 Chevy55 Chevy: Driven by Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford). The car that races Milner at the end of the film was built by Richard Ruth for the film Two Lane Blacktop based on a ‘56 Chevy raced himself. It has a 454 big block V8 with tunnel ram intake and dual 4bbl carbs. It also has various custom made fibreglass panels including the trunk lid and hood. It has been suggested that it is capable of a quarter mile in less than 11 seconds. It also has a shiny black paintjob since its primer grey appearance in the earlier film. And don’t worry about the rollover and fire. That was a non running ’55 Bel Air 2-door hardtop that came from a salvage yard and retuned there after filming. The body style is slightly different to the main cars so a fake B pillar made of wood was installed.

American Graffiti 32 Ford32 Ford Coupe: Driven by John Milner (Paul Le Mat) the automotive star of the film. The car was purchased for the film, a few alterations were made including painting it a “Sort of a cross between piss yella’ and puke green”. There is little information on what the specification but it has bee suggested on several websites that it has a 1966 327 small block V8 from a corvette. As the film was set in 1962 this was never mentioned. It is just referred to as the “fastest thing in the Valley”

 

  • 56 Ford T-Bird: Borrowed for the film and driven by the mysterious blond (Suzanne Summers).
  • 51 Mercury Driven by The Pharaohs. This is my personal feverwort car in the film. It just looks stuning.
  • 58 Chevy Impala: Driven by Steve (Ron Howard) borrowed by Terry for a lot of the film.
  • Citroen 2CV AZA: Driven by Curt (Richard Dreyfuss).
  • 59 Paggio Vespa GS160: Ridden (in the loosest sense of the word) by Terry “Toad” (Charlie Martin Smith). Towards the beginning of the film when he crash into the building he really did lose control of the bike and crashed it, it wasn’t in the script but it was so in keeping with the character it made it into the film.
  • 1961 Ford Galaxie: driven by the police in the famous scene where it loses its rear axel thanks to Curt and the Pharaohs.

The film was nominated for five Oscars; Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Candy Clark: Best Director George Lucas: Best Editing, Verna Fields & Marcia Lucas: Best Picture Francis Ford Coppola & Gary Kurtz (producers): Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced, George Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Sadly it didn’t win any of them but did win two golden globes. Best Motion Picture – Musical/Comedy and Most Promising Newcomer – Male for Paul Le Mat.

American Graffiti raceSo there are no existential themes or complex metaphors here, the film is just a fantastic slice of nostalgia brilliantly put together in a way that has never been surpassed. The closest any film has ever come to emulating it is Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused that interestingly deals with the other end on the same period in history. I can not think of any other film that has been so commercially successful but retains a devoted following normally reserved for a cult film. The reason for this is probably is that it is a film everyone can relate to. Even if we didn’t grow up in 1960’s California we were all young once and we all had to made decisions in life. Everyone will see something in the film that reminds them of their youth. If you don’t think it is George Lucas’ best film and you are under thirty watch it again in a few years and see if you have changed your mind. I am in my early thirties and although I have loved since I first saw it when I was in my teens, I get so much more out of it now, after all what do we have to be nostalgic about when we are teenagers?

For more information on the film visit the fan sites:

 

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Convoy

convoy1Convoy is a misunderstood and often (unfairly) criticised film. One constantly mentioned point is that it is based on a song. That isn’t entirely true. The original version of the song does not include the plot or the characters from the film. A new version was written based on the screenplay, this is the one used in the film and played on the radio. It is also the highest grossing film of Sam Peckinpah’s directorial career. The basic plot of the film is that a group of truckers including The Duck (Kris Kristofferson) go on the run heading first for the state line and ultimately the Mexican border following an altercation with a corrupt sheriff superbly played by Ernest Borgnine. As they are perused by the sheriff their numbers grow as other trucks join them in support. The situation is further complicated by the presence of a photographer (Ali MacGraw) who is riding with The Duck following the breakdown of her car.

the-duckThere is also a lot of debate as to what the film is about? Is it an attempt to cash in on the CB radio craze of the time? Or a protest at the 55 MPH speed limit? Or even an exploration of equality or race. It is probably a bit of all these things but it also contains all the elements you would expect of a Sam Peckinpah film. The violent and bloody climaxes that his films often have are not the point of the film the end of an era or a change of times is merely represented by this killing. The Ducks apparent death and his ultimate survival could be interpreted a lot of ways. I like to think it is a message of hope that the cowboy spirit of the truck drivers has not been lost or broken. Despite the hardship that the Duck faces in the face of changing times and because of his moral code by surviving he defeats Lyle’s amoral code.

aliThere are two things that make the film work. The cast and the trucks, more about the trucks later. The cast is headed by Kris Kristofferson as Rubber Duck aka The Duck aka Martin Penwald. He was at the height of his fame having made some great films: Cisco Pike and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (also with Sam Peckinpah) Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (directed by Martin Scorseese) as well as the rubbish but popular A Star is Born. Ali MacGraw had not made a film since The Getaway (also directed by Pecckinpah) six years earlier (following her divorce from Robert Evans and marriage to Steve McQueen) but was still a bankable star. Burt Young was recognisable after the success of Rocky. The film stealing performance comes from Ernest Borgnine as Lyle Wallace, the corrupt sheriff and The Ducks nemesis.

I said more about the trucks later. The film has a real cult following and as with all cult films it has fanatical fans (See my post from 25th February about my trip to Texas last year) but some fans are more productive with their obsession .

mack-and-tank

As they explain on the website the plan was to build a spot-on replica of the Ducks Mack truck but this proved impossible as four different Mack’s were used that were not identical so no one truck can be an exact match. The starting point for the project was the purchase of a 1970 Mack that was used as the second unit truck in the film. It was very badly damaged and has been completely re-built and is now roadworthy and has the licence plate RBR-DUK. You can read more about here:

death-proofAnd speaking of fans look out for the duck on Stuntman Mikes cars in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. In a film full of references to other films this one stands out.

pecckinpah

This is a film that different people will take different things away from but many will enjoy. As a child I was obsessed with the film probably because of the trucks. As a student I watched a lot of other Sam Peckinpah movies and on revisiting the film I did see a parallel with some of his other films as described above. This gave Thanks to Dan from RD Productions LC for permission to use the image of his amazing recreation of The Ducks truck.the film an extra dimension for me. I have read lots of things about the troubled production including the suggestion that the second unit director (actor James Coburn) directed a lot of the film while Sam Peckinpah was unwell (unwell being a euphemism for his much publicised problems of the time), unfortunately to the best of my knowledge this has never beer confirmed or denied publicly. So if you haven’t seen this film it is well worth a look. If you haven’t seen it for a long time it is worth another look.

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