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Archive for May, 2010

Yes that’s right, Clint Eastwood is 80 today. With over fifty years experience as an actor and nearly forty as a director there is no word more suitable to describe Eastwood than legend. Although he hung up his acting hat after Gran Torino he still appears to be going strong as a director with supernatural thriller Hereafter is in post production and is set for release in the autumn (it stars Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard) and a J. Edgar Hoover biography in pre-production, Leonardo DiCaprio is rumoured for the title role.  Below is a list of essential Eastwood directed movies that I first published last year, it also featured in the LAMB directors chair series. Picking just ten was difficult as all his films are worth seeing for one reason or another. I have tried to pick a combination of the best, the most interesting, the most memorable and the most groundbreaking:

 

Play Misty For Me:

“Careful! I might put your eye out”

Eastwood’s directorial début is the story of a one night stand with an obsessed fan that turns into a taught suspense thriller as she begins to stalk him. Think fatal attraction but better! Eastwood plays it safe with the Carmel setting and Jazz score but puts his heroic mescaline image on the line by casting himself as a self centred character who becomes a victim. The slow deliberate direction and the great use of the beautiful location show great maturity from the fledgling director and points the way of things to come.

 

The Outlaw Josey Wales:

Bounty hunter – “A man’s got to do something for a living these days”Josey Wales – “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy”

This film stands up as one of Eastwood’s best westerns along side the “Dollars trilogy” and Unforgiven. It has all the classic western themes such as revenge and redemption and is full of great characters. Most notably Lone Watie played by Chief Dan George to great comic effect.

Heartbreak Ridge:

“With all due respect, sir, you’re beginning to bore the hell out of me.”

This may at first glance be a strange choice along side classics like Unforgiving and Million Dollar Baby but watching Heartbreak Ridge again for the first time in years you suddenly realise that it stands up well and is a really good film. Eastwood demonstrated his comic timing as both an actor and a director. The story is compelling and its themes are as relevant as ever. Even back then people wanted to work with him Mario Van Peebles learnt to play guitar just to get a role in the film.

Bird:

“The bird has just a little time to flutter”

Eastwood’s love of jazz made him the perfect director for this Charlie Parker biopic. The film is beautifully photographed and gives a real sense of 40/50’s America. But it is the acting that makes the film great. Eastwood gave Forest Whitaker the role of a lifetime and he repays by giving the performance of a lifetime (I include his Oscar winning Last King of Scotland performance in that). Whitaker shows all the pain of Parker’s troubled life in a completely compelling performance.

White Hunter Black Heart:

“You, my dear, are the ugliest goddamn bitch I have ever dined with”

A fictional account of a movie director who becomes obsesses with hunting and killing an elephant that has a striking (intended) similarity to John Huston whilst filming The African Queen. Eastwood’s performance (and the use of an accent other than his own) is different to his usual but completely believable. The film is worth seeing just for the scene where Eastwood’s character confronts an anti-Semitic dinner guest (the quote above comes from that scene). It is at this moment you realise the character is not beyond redemption.

Unforgiven:

“That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned”

Unforgiven tears away all the mythology of the western genre (that Eastwood helped to build up) and gives us a gritty, dirty and violent vision of the old west. Like all his other great films the thing that makes this film stand out is the first rate acting. Eastwood’s William Munny is a fantastic character but the film shines because of the first rate support from Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris.

Million Dollar Baby:

“Frankie likes to say that boxing is an unnatural act, that everything in boxing is backwards: sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back… But step back too far and you ain’t fighting at all”

A truly hard hitting (bad pun completely intended) movie. I went in to the film expecting it to simply be a sports movie and that would have been good. Whilst other sports have suffered on film boxing often comes out well, there have been lots of great boxing movies, Raging Bull being the best. What we got was so different to what I was expecting. The film is moving along nicely when it takes a huge U-turn. The characters played by Eastwood himself, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman are all excelant in their own right but there is more to it than that. The relationship and interaction between the characters is what makes the film. If you haven’t seen the film it is both devastating and uplifting and a must see film.

Mystic River:

“We bury our sins here, Dave. We wash them clean”

What starts out as a simple murder mystery becomes so much more. A tragic haunting film that will stay with you long after you have seen it. Sean Penn proves that he is the best actor of his generation with a towering performance. The lighting and photography (Provided by Eastwood’s usual cinematographer Tom Stern) is truly stunning giving a moody atmospheric backdrop for the film.

Flags of Our Fathers & Letters from Iwo Jima:

“I know it’s a good thing, raising the money and that, ’cause we need it. But, I can’t take them calling me a hero. All I did was try not to get shot. Some of the things I saw done, things I did, they weren’t things to be proud of, you know?”

I have included these films as one as they are two sides of the same story shot back to back. Letters from Iwo Jima is probably the better of the two and is about the Japanese defeat on the island, it is based on letters discovered on the island. It goes deep into the mentality and philosophy of the Japanese people and their army. Flags of Our Fathers concentrates on the stories of the six men who raised the flag and the iconic photograph of them doing it (or not as the case may be!) It follows them back home and how they were used for propaganda. The young cast do a great job in a thought provoking film.

Gran Torino:

“Get me another beer, Dragon Lady! This one’s running on empty”

I have controversially chosen Gran Torino over the more critically acclaimed Changeling simply because Angelia Jolie’s great performance aside I actually think Gran Torino is a better film. Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski is a cantankerous old man who seems to be the sum of all the characters he has played throughout his career. What I wasn’t expecting is just how funny the film would be. I have heard suggestions by people who have taken quotes from the film out of context that it is a racist film. I actual fact although it does have a few things to say on the subject it is far from racist if anything it is the opposite. It deals with many other topics including: life, death, love, loss, hate, age, race, religion and identity. The first must see movie of 2009.

 

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Gemma Arterton

To go alongside my movie of the month (announced on Tuesday) I am starting a new monthly post. Movie Star of the Month. This award has no criteria. I will just pick it based on someone who has impressed or surprised me during the month.

For the first recipient I considered Nicolas Cage for reminding us in Bad Lieutenant that he can act or Mark Strong for his second brilliant turn as a villain this year (Robin Hood and Kick-Ass), is he the new Alan Rickman? But the surprise star of the month is Gemma Arterton for proving she can act with her great performance in the excellent The Disappearance of Alice Creed.

A little bit about Gemma Arterton: The English actress appeared out of nowhere three years ago at the age of 21, she quickly became “the next big thing” with increasingly high profile roles. In 2008 and she appeared alongside Daniel Craig in his second outing as James Bond. Earlier this year she was in the dreadful Clash of the Titans remake and the better than expected Prince of Persia earlier this month. Having been considered for the part of Black Widow/ Natasha Rushman in Iron Man 2 when Emily Blunt dropped out she could have easily been in three movies this month.

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I have just heard the sad news of Dennis Hopper’s death. I don’t have time to write anything that will do justice to him or his career so by way of tribute all I can offer is a few images from his most iconic performances.

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The thing that really stood out about Abel Ferrara’s original “Bad Lieutenant” movie was an amazing performance from Harvey Keitel.  The same can be said of the remake the best thing about it is the central performance from Nicolas Cage.  He manages to find a balance between what he did in Leaving Las Vegas and Face Off. The result, this may well be Cage’s best ever performance.  Whilst the original worked as a character study of a man in the pits of despair and depravity looking for redemption the new movie takes a larger canvas charts the fall and rebirth of the charter, well kind of! One thing that should be made clear, this isn’t a remake. It has the same name and the same idea but it is a new story.  To use an analogy, if it were a song it would not be a cover version it would “be inspired by” or based on the same subject as an old song but using its own music and lyrics.

Set in New Orleans the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, a brief prologue shows how Terence McDonagh (Cage) injures his back, fast forward six months and he is given a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant, by this time heavily reliant on drugs, both prescription and illegal.  He is also a degenerate gambler on a season long losing streak.  Add to the mix, he is lead investigator on a horrific murder where an entire family has been executed.  He also has a high maintenance prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) who also has a drug habit.

Director Werner Herzog is well known for his use of long, lingering and gratuitous shots of landscapes and of animals either out of context or doing unusual things. We actually get both of these things, in some cases both at the same time, depending on your point of view they are either pointless and distracting or give an insight into McDonagh’s character. There is some trademark weirdness like the use of iguanas and alligators and the breakdancing soul of a recently shot man but ultimately this genre piece represents a more accessible side to the director.  However you look at the themes in the movie you can’t get away from the fact it is extremely well shot.  The editing takes a little getting used to as scenes appear to end suddenly leaving little gaps in the narrative. It is a neat trick that works well and helps hold the interest, had it not worked it could have made the movie feel disjointed or episodic.

The cast is full of recognisable faces, as well as Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes there is also former A lister Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, Brad Dourif, Jennifer Coolidge and rapper Xzibit.  Whilst all are well cast and do a good job this is Cages film leaving me wondering why we don’t see more of this Nicolas Cage.  This performance is key to the success of the movie, as the movie unfolds his problems deepen and his solutions become more irrational, as the viewer I wanted him to find a way out.  When it comes McDonagh’s shot at some kind of redemption is so slight and subtle that its significance may be missed.  What speaks volumes for the movie as a character piece is routine nature but the far reaching effects of the story/life changing scenes.

The movie works on two levels, both a well made cop-thriller and character study; as such it is better than the original in the first respect but weaker in the second.  Overall I would say it is at least equal to and possibly superior to the original film.  It suffers a little bit on pace and could have taken a leaf out of Ferrara’s 90 something minute book.  The story is sometimes grim but it does offer hope and salvation and there are even some funny moments along the way

Four Stars out of Five

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The British Are Coming

I was recently honoured to be invited to be a guest on The Mad Hatters LAMMY nominated pod cast “The Matineecast”. You can find it HERE.  Amongst other things we talk about the new Robin Hood movie and count down our top five summer movies. If you don’t already know it, it will be a great opportunity to check out The Dark of The Matinee, one of my favourite movie blogs.

 

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You know that old saying about busses, you know about how you wait for ages for one and they all come together. Well the same can be true of movies, as soon as something is successful the screens are awash with imitators. Sword and sandals flicks died a death years ago, then along comes Gladiator, we are still seeing imitators ten years later. After Scream it was more important for a horror movie to be cleaver and ironic than scary. Every gangster flick for the last twenty years has wanted to be the next Goodfellas and suddenly comic book movies have to be shot on greenscreen to look like Sin City.  Mike from “You Talking to Me?” has enlisted a few fellow bloggers to explore and expose this phenomenon of unoriginality in a great blog-a-thon. In his own words:

“It’s both a celebration of great films and a condemnation of Hollywood’s tendency to repeat trends until they are utterly and hopelessly dead”

It has been running all month so you should already be aware of it. We are getting to the business end of the event with the top five starting today. My own contribution was published earlier this morning. You can see it below and check out the entire event HERE.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) – Dir: Guy Ritchie

Cinema was built on genres and one of the most enduring genres is the gangster/crime movie. Often overlapping with other genres like film noir, thrillers and even comedy gangster movies have been a mainstay of Hollywood since the golden age of cinema. But here in the United Kingdom they have never had the same relevance and reverence, true there have been some great British gangster movies like The Long Good Friday, Get Carter and Brighton Rock but they have all been a bit few and far between with no collective. Then in 1998 with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels all this changed but was it for better or worse?

If you don’t know the movie, here is a brief synopsis: Eddie (Nick Moran), Soap (Dexter Fletcher). Tom (Jason Flemyng) and Bacon (Jason Statham) have been friends since childhood, seeing an opportunity to make a fast buck they scrape together £100,000 as a stake for an illegal card game hosted by local “porn king” Harry “The Hatchet” Lonsdale (P. H. Moriarty). The Game three card brag (far more British than poker). Eddie the cardsharp of the group sits down to play not realising the game is fixed. Not only does he loser the money but he also has to pay £500,000 within a week to save his fingers and his father’s pub. With time ticking away fast they overhear a plot to rob a group of local dope growers. Then throw into the mix a pair of hapless Scouse thieves, a brace of valuable antique shotguns and mob enforce Big Chris (Vinnie Jones).

The movie is well written funny and original. There are some compelling characters and a great battling underdog theme. It is also unashamedly British, it doesn’t pretend to be a Hollywood movie, set in London with a British cast, British humour. The movie didn’t exactly save the British film industry but it really kick-started it and put it on a new path. It was the first sign in a decade and a half that Colin Welland declaration at the Oscars “the British are coming” may be true, it wasn’t. The problem with the movie is twofold; as well as the countless imitators it also launched the Hollywood career of British thespians Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham, neither are good actors but both are big stars. Jason Statham: As crap as The Transporter (2002) was, it did have few fun moments and was relatively harmless, did it really need two sequels? What was Crank (2006) all about? In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007) was directed by Uwe Boll, need I say more! He has become the Seagal/Van Damme of the past decade, as their movies go direct to DVD Jason Statham movies still get theatrical releases. On top of all this he has had leading or prominent roles in remakes Death Race, The Italian Job and Mean Machine three movies that all have one thing in common, they aren’t as good as the movie they are based on. Vinnie Jones: Although not the most talented footballer in the world, Vinnie Jones was a skilled defender who played on his hard-man reputation to defect attention from his abilities. In 1988 at 23 years old he won the FA Cup with Wimbledon, the so called “Crazy Gang”. Since his retirement from football he has begun to come across as a really nice guy, with this said, he isn’t a good actor. Two directors have known what to do with him, Dominic Sena in Gone in 60 Seconds and Midnight Meat Train in Ryûhei Kitamura gave him minimal dialogue. Other directors: Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand), Barry Skolnick (Mean Machine) chose not to do this!

As for the offending imitators there are many but the worst offender is the only feature directed by Edward Thomas Rancid Aluminium came out just two years after Lock Stock. What is supposed to be a cleaver weaving plot is actually chaos at best. The acting is abysmal the script laughable, the best thing I can say about the movie as a whole is that it is forgettable. Then we have the collective works of Nick Love, the writer director of four nasty little movies in five years: The Football Factory (2004), The Business (2005), Outlaw (2007) and The Firm (2009). These films glorify thugery and violence amongst everyday people with little artistic merit but they are still riding the Lock Stock bandwagon. Even Guy Ritchie is guilty after the failure of Swept Away he returned to the genre with Revolver, an utter mess of a movie. When this didn’t work he tried again with RocknRolla, whist not a bad movie it is still a pale echo of his earlier movies. But there is a glimmer of hope, Lock Stock produce Matthew Vaughn had a new movie he wanted to make but Guy Ritchie wasn’t interested so Vaughn directed it himself, that film was Layer Cake and it moved the British Gangster movie to add to this with Sherlock Holmes Guy Ritchie proved he could be a director for hire and he could operate in other genres, well sort of!

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There is a certain school of thought that suggests movies based on video games should be considered similar to those based on comic books, this is a misconception. Comic books are often made up of complex storylines that are developed over months or even years. The characters usually have complete back stories that if the publication lasts long enough will be revealed an “origin” story (only to be rewritten by someone else a few years later). Video games on the other hand are made up of a premise that only needs to be complex or expansive enough to explain the action. That is probably why there are so many great (yes I did say great) comic book movies (The Dark Knight and X-Men 2 to name just two) but no great video game movies. There is one game based movie that actually does work because of its origin rather than despite it. Universally slated on its release the critics were right, it is a poor film but not without merit and charm. I will confess at this point that I don’t own a games console (and never have) so I am far from an expert on them and can’t say how the games and movies compare.

To disguise a break in at an underground facility the thief releases a deadly virus. In response the buildings computer initiates a lockdown. A team of commando’s enters the facility, on the way the pick up three people including Alice (Milla Jovovich) a security operative suffering from amnesia. In the facility known as the hive they find more than the bargained for. As memories return the story unfolds.

Characters in the movie including the leader of the commando group (Colin Salmon) provide explanations regarding what has happened, what will happen, what they need to do and the environment and characters around them, this is very much like the instructions given between levels in a game. Once a goal has been achieved the scenes end abruptly and the movie jumps to the next set piece, again like the levels of a game. The music often appears to be on a loop that lulls and rises with the action both in pace and volume, it also incorporates sound effects to go with the action. All this is tied up with the most game like device, it is against the clock.

Although purists will argue that they aren’t zombies the film does offer a pretty good example of the genre with the small group of characters slowly being overrun by the vast numbers of the mindless walking dead, and killer zombie dogs what a great idea. It is when the zombie attack begins that the action kicks in and it is well handled. Using a combination of running through corridors, choreographed fights and lots of shooting the action is mixed up nicely. Stringing all this together is a thin but workable plot with a few twists and turns but no real surprises.

As previously mentioned the movie is flawed, the dialogue is bad, very bad, the acting isn’t much better. The eerie opening is soon forgotten where it could have been used throughout the movie. It lacks the necessary horror and gore of a zombie movie but that could have given it a box-office destroying certificate. Basically, not a great movie but a better one than you may think.

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