Saturday, November 28, 2009

Better Late than Never

Well, just returned from seeing Paranormal Activity. Should have a review up soon, before the Start of December.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Payback/Payback: Straight Up (Helgeland 1999/2006)

As hard as it might be to remember, there was a period of time when Mel Gibson was not a controversial figure, but in fact was a respected actor and a movie star’s kind of movie star: he was box office gold, an actor with solid range, and an acclaimed director to boot (though I personally have problems with his directorial efforts, but let’s save that for later). This was a time when Gibson could go on The Simpsons, claim to be loved by everyone, and not have an audience laugh at the bitter irony the line now carries. This was also a time when, when you boil it right down, he was able to star in some damn good films, like the crime caper/revenge film Payback.

Of course, Payback is a film that has been caught up in a very different type of controversy, though one where Gibson is no less at the center of it. The directorial debut of acclaimed screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), Payback became the type of disaster every director, first timer or not, dreads. After finishing his initial edit, Helgeland was fired by Gibson (a producer on the film) and the studio, who were shocked by how harsh the film was. Reshoots were mounted under another director, with an entirely new ending and beginning attached to the film. The finished film proved to be a modest success in terms of both box office and critical reaction, but the controversy surrounding the production problems resulted in fans asking time and again as to when the original version of Payback would ever be released.

Luckily, in 2006 the original version of the film was finally released on home video for all to see under the title Payback: Straight Up. Usually in these cases, there is a clearly superior version of the film, or both versions are heavily flawed works with their own strengths and weaknesses. Payback however manages to buck the trend with both versions managing to be solid genre efforts without a clear victory in the better film department. While each film goes down a different road and fits a different mood, both Payback cuts are worth owning in a film collection.

Based on the novel by Richard Stark, which was used as the basis for the 1967 John Boorman film Point Blank (which might still be the best film of this group by far), both films follow the same set up: Porter (Gibson) is a small level thug who is double crossed and left for dead by fellow criminal Val (Gregg Henry) and Porter’s wife (Deborah Kara Unger) after stealing money from a Chinese gang. Returning to the city a few months later, Porter simply wants his cut of the money, and is willing to work through various lowlifes to get it. Unfortunately, the further he goes, the more criminal bureaucratic red tape there is to work through.

The differences between the two cuts are subtle until the end of each respective film, but the small changes make a tremendous difference in the tone of each work. The first important difference is the introduction to Porter: the theatrical cut, which employs voice over from Porter over the entire film, gives the viewer a clear understanding of what has happened to Porter and his goals starting with the first scene on an operating table. Knowing about Porter’s situation and experiences from the start provides a context for Porter’s actions which allows an audience to more easily digest the violence he engages in. Porter is bad, but not that bad. We actually grow to like him somewhat.

Payback: Straight Up however drops the viewer right into Porter’s arrival in the city, with no voice over to be heard anywhere over the entire film. The result is a Porter whose actions and motivations are more ambiguous, and leave the viewer on edge. The revelation about what happened to Porter is saved until after he finds his wife and a brutal physical altercation happens that is more reminiscent of domestic abuse than a man defending himself. While we are not exactly against Porter in this version, we understand him to be a far more ruthless individual, and remain more objective to the actions he takes. In fact, we are left to ask the same question that the other criminals in the film ask: is the miniscule amount of money really worth the hell Porter causes for himself and others? Is this really about the principle of the matter for Porter, or is there something else?

It is this key shift that, as a total film and experience, makes the director’s cut of Payback a superior film in that it is trying for something more than the original cut. The result of this effort is a tighter, more focused film overall. Yet the original film cannot be dismissed entirely either, for while it is somewhat shallower and certainly more mainstream, the slick, pop pulp version of the story is a ton of fun itself, allowing for a gleeful bit of fantasy where the little guy can get what is rightfully his and stick it to the upper level powers in society, laughing all the way.

Such a fantasy is oddly compelling, particularly in the ten years that have passed since the original release of Payback. With what seems like endless corporate fraud and various lower to middle classes individuals paying the price for big corporate greed, Payback taps into that desire to get back at such institutions which seem to be able to say “sorry, but we cannot give you your money back.” The moral questions of such a fantasy are vast of course, and seems entirely counter to Hegeland’s intents with the film, but the appeal is undeniable.

Moreover, the film in its two versions can be seen as both marking very different points in Mel Gibson’s public image. While Gibson would make a few more standard blockbuster films after, the original Payback is perhaps the last great film of the “classic” Gibson era. He is a likeable, hard working average man up against the vast resources of those above his station (even if he is a criminal). Payback: Straight Up, coming at the time of his notorious arrest for driving while intoxicated and making an anti-Semitic remark, seems eerily coincidental with its harsher Porter who is not easily liked or understood. It is allowing the viewer to see Porter in a different light, much as Gibson had been (and continues to be).

That might just be the shame though with regards to the release of Hegeland’s director’s cut. While we are finally able to see the film as he intended, Gibson’s shadow dominates the piece in more ways than one, feeling like a film that belongs to Gibson more than anyone else. It doesn’t matter that the supporting cast is the kind that most filmmakers would dream of, with Maria Bello, Gregg Henry, Bill Duke, John Glover, Lucy Liu, James Coburn and William Devane among others: the film is Gibson’s show, like it or not.

As it stands, I highly recommend Payback in any version, though if you had to pick just one to watch, Payback: Straight Up is the way to go. With Gibson finally returning to the public eye with the upcoming thriller The Edge of Darkness, it will be interesting to see which Gibson turns up. Are we about to witness Mel attempting to carry on business as usual? Or are we about to see Gibson radically altered by his recent mistakes? It will be interesting to find out.

Monday, November 23, 2009

MORE Net problems

Aghh! Still more internet problems! Still eating up my time, along with work.

So, expect the review (unless more problems show up!) to be up tomorrow. The film? Payback.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Internet Problems and New Review Soon

Hey everyone!

Sadly, a series of internet problems hit over the past few days, which has taken up much of my time and prevented any new posting till now. Blame wireless. But I appear to be back up and running, so expect a review (or is that reviews?) of a ten year old film that is in need of some love.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Box (Kelly 2009)

Sometimes, just sometimes, a filmmaker is their own worst enemy, both in terms of creativity and sheer career planning. Richard Kelly might just fall into this category, having now sabotaged himself twice, in two different ways with his post Donnie Darko (2001) films. Southland Tales (2006) was a bizarre experiment that is fascinating to watch, but was doomed to critical and financial failure with his attempt to transform the film into a multimedia event that just about nobody was willing to participate in. Film is not the internet, and Kelly seemed to have to learn this the hard way. Now, with his latest film The Box, based on the Richard Matheson story “Button , Button” from 1970, Kelly has managed to bring about his own undoing again, though this time within the confines of the narrative of the film itself.

Matheson’s original story, a mere twelve pages in length, was an exploration of social responsibility and personal greed that worked like a sucker punch to the gut. The story is not character or story driven however, and is propelled forward by a central moral question embodied in its high concept premise: could you, by just pressing a button, kill someone you don’t know if it paid you enough? The social commentary of the story is dense and complex, but not exactly cinematic. This leaves potential filmmakers with two options when adapting the tale: either adapting the film as a short, maintaining the style and impact of the short story, or expand the narrative and explore the commentary further.

Kelly in this case chooses the latter option. Sort of. Instead of merely expanding the material of the source, Kelly reinvents it, drawing, oddly enough, from Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The tale becomes an exploration about how individuals make sense of the universe, blending science fiction as well as religious concepts and iconography as character’s seek to understand God (or, given the approach in the film, whatever beings are at the center of the mystery standing in for God) and the tests that all of human kind are put through. As is traditional with Kelly, the film increasingly moves into metaphysical territory as it progresses, and gives the viewer plenty to think about.

Set in the 1970s, the couple at the center of the film are Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), who have a son and are in a financially poor state. Arthur works as a lowly paid member of NASA who has helped work on developing the technology for capturing photographs and sending them across space back to Earth. Norma is an English teacher with an injured leg. Unlike the couple of Matheson’s text, Norma and Arthur are generally good people both dreaming of different forms of escaping their situation.

Enter Mr. Steward (Frank Langella), who presents the couple with the ominous box of the title and the offer noted earlier. After the expected debates that would go with such a situation, the button is inevitably pressed and the film shifts into something of a detective film, as both Norma and Arthur investigate the reasons and people behind the box.

It is this detective element that Kelly adds to the tale which somewhat injures the film. At its core, the mystery is not unlike that of the film Blow Up (Antonioni 1966), in that the central investigation is really irrelevant and instead gives viewers an opportunity to explore the characters undertaking the respective investigations. Any answers either film could give to the mystery would never live up to expectations or scrutiny, and really don’t matter. The situations the characters are in simply are, and are not meant to be seen entirely literally. Kelly however gives enough screen time and reasoning to the reasons behind the tests that audiences can be forgiven for mistaking the film as being about the finding out about the conspiracy itself rather than the character exploration that it is. It becomes a distraction: too much is given to ignore the literal story level concerns of the film, yet too little is given to flesh it out properly. In any event, what surface level answers are provided are sheer disappointments. This is a shame, because so much of what Kelly is trying to do in the film is fascinating that to see it damned entirely thanks to a problem that should have been avoided is frustrating.

In fact, what the flaws of The Box suggest is that Kelly himself is a victim of his own supposed auteur status that was given to him after Donnie Darko. Much like M. Night Shyamalan came to have twist endings associated with him after The Sixth Sense (1999), Kelly seems to have adopted complex narrative structures and storylines as a requirement in all of his films, including films that he is only a writer on, like Domino (Scott 2005). The problem is that so far none of the films have really needed or benefited from this approach. The method of how a story is told needs to fit the story itself, something that recent filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino have so far proven to understand. Kelly however, does not.

As it stands, Kelly is proving to be a brilliant man with great potential that is at risk of damning his own career. One needs only to look at the beautifully designed frames and edits to see Kelly’s immense visual prowess, and his skill at getting an excellent performance out of Cameron Diaz, an actress who I have written off in the past as being fairly flat and lacking in range, is a testament to his skill at working with actors. This will be all for naught if Kelly doesn’t find a way to work past his own excesses.

In all, The Box is a more consistent effort from Kelly and worth watching. However, it needs to be tempered with the knowledge that a better version of this film could have been made, and to accept the film for what is trying to escape from within its own flaws.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Harold and Maude (Ashby 1971)

It’s great when you get to see a film that you haven’t seen in years without planning it. Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude was that film this past weekend, and it’s hard to believe that I have gone this long without seeing it again. Coming at the height of the New Hollywood Cinema, Harold and Maude is not only a film which addresses the youth movement and political zeitgeist of the time, but works to subvert the earlier youth rebellion films that preceded it.

Given the time period the film came out of, such subversion is necessary. After 1969 and the Altamont Free Concert, the counter culture movement of the 1960s was, to say the least, in disarray. Disillusionment was starting to set it, and the future was looking bleak. This sense of frustration and fear is at the heart of Harold and Maude. The film follows Harold (But Cort), a young man from a wealthy family who lacks direction in his life. Obsessed with death, Harold drives around in a hearse and attends funerals, and repeatedly fakes his suicide. At one of the funerals he attends, he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), and elderly woman whose youthful approach to life drags him into her world, and into a relationship that is quite surprising.

While much has been written about Harold and Maude as a romance and as a black comedy, at its core, the film is a survivor’s tale, though not in the traditional sense. There is no mass horror or victimisation that has happened to Harold. Harold, in fact, is the beneficiary of a wealthy background and privilege, not even seeming to possess a job.

Yet images of death and suffering abound the film. Beyond the funerals and Harold’s fake suicides, there is Harold’s uncle, a military man missing an arm; a tree that, as Maude explains, is suffering in being surrounded by the pollution of the city; Harold’s dates are organized by a computer, removing all sense of life from the dates before they even happen; even the absence of any mention of Harold’s father is reflective of death in his lack of any seeming impression upon his son. Death is understood less in literal terms as the absence of life and instead becomes metaphorical: death as the absence of living.

Perhaps the most beautiful illustration of this point is a small, fleeting moment in the film about half way through when Harold is talking to Maude and notices something on her arm: a concentration camp tattoo. While such a detail in most films would be a major point for a character, it is only a small part of a richer tapestry here, and the very lack of focus becomes even more important as a statement than any speech would have. Both Maude and the film itself refuse to allow the acts of horror to take center stage and dominate the text and dictate the course of events. This is not to say they are ignored, only that they are not what define the character of the film. Death becomes something controllable, containable, and thus becomes an extension of life itself.

On a level of cinematic skill, Hal Ashby’s work as director is magnificent. Along with drawing out the best performance of both lead actors’ respective careers, each scene is a master’s study in cinematic craft. Each scene is meticulously framed, shot and edited, full of detail and managing to visually tell a story that, on paper, must have mostly seemed to be a dialogue driven effort. The style seems oddly familiar to Wes Anderson’s work, with a grittier, real looking aesthetic to offset the more surreal elements of the film. A comparison between these filmmakers is one I will leave at the moment to a more ambitious critic at the moment, but it will make for facinating reading.

Of course, I couldn't’ finish this review without mentioning the music of Cat Stevens. While it occasionally seems a bit too on the nose in some scenes, the music often perfectly captures the youthful spirit and joy of the subject matter. It is unsurprising that many of these songs have become part of the public consciousness since the film’s release, and it makes one wish Cat Stevens (or Yusuf Islam as he is now known) would produce just one more album in the style of his old work.

When all is said and done, I cannot recommend Harold and Maude enough for viewers. Rent it, buy it, whatever, and catch one of the best films to encapsulate and era.

Stay tuned next month, when I will review perhaps Hal Ashby's main masterpiece, 1979's Being There.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

HAROLD AND MAUDE review tomorrow.

As the title says. Be on the look out!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Back, and new review soon!

Back from my trip, relaxed and ready to go! First up, a review of Harold and Maude!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

One Last Update: The Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema!

Ok, about to sleep for the night so I can get on a train tomorrow, but a major heads up for Canadians in Ontario or those visiting!

The city of Waterloo will be holding the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema between November 19th and the 22nd, showcasing cinema from around the world, including Russia, Ireland, and Japan! It will also be featuring Rebuild of Evangelion 2.0 for anime fans! Get the complete list here!

Frank Capra and the Lottery: Insulting a Classic

Remember It's a Wonderful Life? Frank Capra's 1946 holiday classic about the evils of greed, how one person can make a difference, and the importance of family and community?

Well, I am glad you did, because the individuals who run the lotto here in Canada sure didn't: today I was horrified to see the holiday lotto tickets go out for sale, and dear God, there is a ticket based on It's a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed's faces smack dab on the front of it. In COLOUR.

I mean, come on! Look, its one thing to use crappy game shows as the basis for lotto tickets, but Capra deserves better. Seriously, this lotto ticket is a slap in the face to everything Capra's film stood for. Capra was all about people: material wealth was always a secondary concern in his work, and the industries and people that represented such greed were fair targets for criticism and vilification in Capra's works.

So, what is next? A Peanuts Christmas special "Money Money Money!" lotto ticket? How about A Christmas Story brand of turkey? Where the hell does it end?


Anyways, won't be another post till next week, as I am on a trip. Till then, have a great week!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Uwe Boll does a film about DARFUR?!

No. Just, no.

There is no way in hell that this is going to work. Boll can't even get grade-Z level cinematic trash right, and this man thinks he can do a film about Darfur?

Ugh. Anyways, the trailer is at the link below. God help us.

God help us all

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dear God: A remake of THE THIRD MAN?

Really? Somebody is idiotic enough to subject themselves the the backlash and critical failure this film will most likely receive?

Well, it appears that not only is one person stupid enough to try and remake Carol Reed's 1949 masterpiece, but three people are: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Eastern Promises screenwriter Steven Knight. Now, all three of these individuals are highly talented and capable of great work. Eastern Promises was one of the best slow burn films of the past decade, a brilliant character study, and DiCaprio and Maguire have come a long way since their early days to both become respectable actors. However, and let me be clear about these, none of these three are capable of making a film that could EVER live up to the work of Carol Reed, Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.

For those of you who have never seen the film, The Third Man is set in post-WWII Vienna, where Holly Martin's (Cotten) has arrived to see an old friend, Harry Lime (Welles), only to discover that Lime is apparently dead. To say anything else would spoil the film, but needless to say, not all is as it seems, and is full of some of the greatest writing, acting and directing you are going to see in any film. Best of all, it has what is easily one of the most iconic end shots in all of cinema, the kind of ending shot most filmmakers dream of. So go see the damn thing!

Given all this, I cannot understand why any filmmaker, actor, etc. would subject themselves to the torture of remaking a masterpiece. It will not be enough for the film to be good. The film will have to match the bar set by the earlier film, if not try and better it, because if it can't the question will always come back to why they even bothered in the first place. The original isn't a flawed film in anyway, it hasn't dated (which is an argument I hate anyway), and Welles and Cotten are cinematic legends. DiCaprio and Maguire are mere kids compared to those two, and who wants to see well meaning kids perform adult material?

I hope this film doesn't pan out, but we shall see. Damn Hollywood...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Coming Soon: the Top 30

Hey! Soon, very soon, I will finally post my top thirty favorite films list. I still have not entirely settled on the format for the list, but it should be settled soon!