Dog Day Afternoon

Posted: September 11, 2011 in Drama

Has American director Sidney Lumet had any missteps in his long and prolific career?  You bet, but Dog Day Afternoon is not one of them.

Starring Al Pacino and his Godfather co-star John Cazale, the film is based on a true story in which two men, John (called Sonny) Wojtowicz and Sal Naturile robbed a bank in order to pay for Sonny’s partner’s sex reassignment surgery.  The police and the media arrived on the scene before the two criminals could escape, and they were forced to take hostages.

There are no heroes in Dog Day Afternoon, nor are there any villains.  Lumet’s direction is objective, with the camera capturing solely the events and characters involved rather than interpreting and analyzing the characters’ moral justifications.  The police are simply doing their job, and Sonny and Sal are doing theirs.  It’s a unique perspective, and one that helps the audience to sympathize with those, who, in a more conventional film, would have been the bad guys.

Sonny  is eminently likable, displaying a desperate charisma that brings him into favor with the spectators and his captives.  In fact, the robbery imbues Sonny with celebrity status, creating a contrasting, often humorous dichotomy between the events taking place inside and outside; it’s a crime scene in the bank, and the red carpet outside.  One scene, in which the head teller, after urged by the police to escape, responds by saying that her place is with her coworkers, before shyly smiling at the cameras and walking back inside with Sonny, illustrates how much of a show the crime has become; the head teller is enjoying the attention.

I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my…Oh, wait…Wrong movie!

Sal is a more difficult character to understand.  He’s quiet, uneducated, and certainly more dangerous than Sonny (although he seems to be entirely in Sonny’s thrall).  He is the one who seems most committed to killing the hostages, and, while Sonny is busy making friends, Sal often seems distant, detached. Still, there are scenes in which he’s shown interacting, being even friendly, with his victims, and it’s clear that the hostages are enjoying his company (at least as much as they can enjoy it, considering the circumstances).

Sal’s motives for joining his friend in the crime are never revealed, and, with less knowledge about the character, it’s harder to predict how he’ll act. However, withholding information, something the film does often, unexpectedly helps the audience sympathize with the two perps.  The audience is fed tidbits of Sonny and Sal’s pasts (mostly Sonny’s), but the little pieces we are given are never explored further.  What we do find out though, serves to illustrate the two as fairly normal people.  Ok, so it’s true that Sonny is married to a woman and a man at the same time, which, let’s face it, is pretty out-of-the-ordinary, but we also discover that Sonny used to be bank teller and that both he and Sal served in Vietnam.  Sonny has two children with his wife.  Sal is scared of flying.  These facts may be superficial, not revealing any deep-set character flaws or past emotional traumas, but they articulate and support an important point: these two men are average, everyday men, not coldblooded criminals, and their ineptitude, relatively congenial personalities, and motive seems to lessen, but not diminish, the threat they pose.

With unique characters and perfect direction, Dog Day Afternoon is an absolute must-see from one of the greats of American cinema.

Stars *****

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Memorable Lines:  “You think you got problems? I’m with a guy who don’t know Wyoming ain’t a country.”

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Recommended Films: Badlands 

Next Weekend

Movie #13

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A True Tarantino Film

Posted: August 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

“I always said, if I had to f**k a guy… I mean had to, if my life depended on it… I’d f**k Elvis.”

It’s a line in the opening monologue of 1993’s True Romance, a line that identifies the film as unmistakably belonging not to the director of the film, Tony Scott, but its writer, the king of pop-culture and f**k-bombs himself, Quentin Tarantino.  The movie lacks directorial flair, so the dialogue and plot shoulder most of the burden.

The story revolves around Clarence, a comic shop employee with a penchant for old kung-fu movies.  He meets Alabama, a hooker, one night at a late screening, and shortly afterwards, they marry.  Alabama however, is afraid that her pimp will find her, so Clarence takes it upon himself to free his wife from her fear.  In doing so, he inadvertently ends up with a suitcase full of cocaine.  He and Alabama decide sell it, and flee to Los Angeles with the owners in hot pursuit.  

 

How many times do I have to tell you?! It needs more cowbell!

 

The strength of the writing is augmented by Scott’s direction, which, as mentioned before, is straightforward.  The camera records, rather than interprets, leaving plenty of room for Tarantino’s stylized, ultra-hip dialogue to tell the story. Tarantino’s movies can be self-indulgent and shallow, and often have more to do with the writer/director’s love of film rather than anything profound.  True Romance isn’t much different in this respect, but it does feel tighter, less bloated than his more recent efforts.  There are no drawn-out conversations about the death of a goldfish, or the names of fast-food burgers in Amsterdam.  I know these types of conversations are what makes Tarantino movies unique and that they’re  a large part of why people like him, but I think he can get carried away sometimes.  That’s not to say that the movie is completely devoid of this trademark; it’s undeniably present, but it has more connection with the plot and characters than is typical.  Everything is necessary to the story and developing the characters. 

Though it’s not one of his more famous efforts, True Romance is one of Tarantino’s better ones.  If you have even mildly enjoyed one of his movies, check this one out.   

 

Stars ****1/2

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Fascinating Fact: Tarantino has said that this film is the most autobiographical he’s made to date. 

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Recommended Films: Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers

 

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Movie #13

Steven Spielberg has the distinction of having made two films that are on my personal list of the worst movies ever made.  Both of them hold positions in the top five, which is why I’m always a little bit trepid before watching one of the influential director’s movies.  Thankfully, Duel suffers from none of Spielberg’s overt and often cloying sentimentality, and this makes the movie one of his better efforts.  The entertainment value is terrific, and Spielberg’s talent is apparent.  Not all the accolades can be lain on the director though, as author/screenwriter Richard Matheson opts to keep the dialogue to a minimum and let the tension arise from the dramatics of the chase.     

The plot is painfully simple, yet the simpleness lends itself to the effectiveness of the movie.  Dennis Weaver plays a business man who, while driving to see a client, decides to pass a slow-moving, smog-belching tanker truck.  From that moment on, he finds himself relentlessly pursued and harassed by the belligerent vehicle and its  driver.

The plot works, and it does so because the writer and director make terrific use of their not insignificant technical skills.  As mentioned before, Matheson chooses silence (mostly) over dialogue.  This serves a dual (or should I say Duel) purpose; it not only emphasizes the menacing roar of the tanker and the crunch of metal as it slams again and again into its victim’s rear bumper, but it also serves as a reminder of the character’s total isolation.  There is some dialogue, most of which is written as a voiceover and used to clue the audience in to Weaver’s character’s emotional state.  It’s corny, and Weaver’s performance, while a bit dated, is good enough to be able to carry the film without it.

Come on and join our convoy/ ain't nothing gonna get in our way/We gonna roll this trucking convoy/across the USA/ Convoooy!

From a directorial standpoint, Spielberg does a great job of imbuing the commonplace with menacing qualities.  Notches on the truck’s rust-ridden body hint at the number of its victims.  It disappears and then, without warning, is barreling down on the small, red Plymouth Valiant.  The driver is never shown, giving the vehicle an almost preternatural quality to it.  While it’s true that the truck is shown from the outset, the many closeups of the grill, the tires, the exhaust pipe, etc. either in the rearview mirrors of Weaver’s car or shown from the camera’s perspective,  remind one of the old monster-movie trope of showing only parts, or glimpses, of the “creature” in order to evoke a greater sense of fear in the audience.  It’s great, and executed well.  Still though, the movie is not perfect.  One oddity arises from an early scene in which Weaver pulls over at a gas station to phone his family.  It’s a very transparent and superficial attempt to paint the character as sympathetic, to give him a little more depth.  It doesn’t work, mostly because outside of that scene, the family is not relevant.  I may be wrong, but I credit this contribution to Spielberg; nearly all of his films pertain to the familial in some way.  Overall though, it’s easy to tell, even in 1971, why Spielberg is, and continues to be, such a popular filmmaker.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what Spielberg’s two worst movies are, click on the links below:

Stars ****1/2

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Fascinating Fact: The film took between twelve and thirteen days to shoot.

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Recommended Films: Joy Ride, The Hitcher

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Movie #12

British Director Nicolas Roeg’s works, which include Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, are often meandering and esoteric, movies that are difficult to unravel and demand repeat viewings.  The Man who Fell to Earth, his 1976 adaptation of author Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, is no exception.  It’s difficult to watch, although not in the same way a film like, say, Sex in the City 2, is.  It requires the viewer’s undivided attention, and, even then, it’s likely that many will be left scratching their heads (I’ll admit to being one of those people).  Maybe though, The Man who Fell to Earth isn’t meant to be immediately understood.  Instead of giving to the audience, like so many summer blockbusters, it asks of them, and its effectiveness as a film is reliant on the amount of thought dedicated to interpreting it.

David Bowie plays a humanoid alien who comes to Earth seeking water for his drought-stricken planet.  Once arrived, he begins to build a corporate empire, using the advanced technology of his own world to develop and patent hundreds of new inventions.  With the money amassed by his business venture, he, under the pseudonym Thomas Jerome Newton, begins construction on a spaceship, intending to bring water to his family and his own world.  Shortly after his success as a business man, he meets Mary-Lou, a young, simple girl working as a maid at a hotel.  They eventually marry, but Newton’s alien origins cause the relationship to sour.

Newton comes to Earth with a mission, a sole desire to ensure the survival of his race.  While his planet dies, the alien begins as quickly as he can to construct the ship that will bring him back home.  Roeg brilliantly employs editing in order to both trivialize and emphasize the importance of time.  There is never any indication when, or how much, time has passed.  Frequently, five or ten years will go by between scenes with little or no indication.  Newton himself never ages, so these quick, subtle jumps simply represent the insignificance of time to him.  It passes, and he works towards his goal, and at first, the only thing that matters is water.  But as the film progresses, Bowie’s quest is sidetracked by gin and the encroachment of his own developing humanity.  The film returns to Newton’s desert planet to reveal the plight of the family he’s left behind and to remind the viewer that time, which passes so quickly, is running out.  Perhaps the “temporal” cuts also serve to imply that Bowie’s alien has simply lost track of his goal, of who he truly is.

There's a starman/waiting in the sky/He'd like to come and meet us/but he thinks he'd blow our mindsI think Ben Stein needs to introduce him to Clear Eyes

Thomas’ disguise is just that: a disguise.  It allows him to “go through the motions,” maintain the illusion of humanity.  He is like the television programs he becomes so enraptured with:  “The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t *tell* you everything,” Newton says.  “It *shows* you everything about life for nothing, but the true mysteries remain.”  He is, for all intents and purposes, only the image of a man.  On an emotional level, on the level which gives meaning to human existence, he is isolated, incapable of hatred, as he tells Mary-Lou after he reveals his true form to her, and, as is implied later during one of his last meetings with his former wife, incapable of love.  “I don’t love you, anymore,” Mary-Lou whispers.  “I don’t love you,” replies Thomas.  There is no adverb indicating past affection.  His is a statement which encompasses all time, past, present, and future.  For Thomas, there is, supposedly, only pretense.  Yet changes occur in his behavior throughout the movie, changes which lead him down a precarious road, one which he seems unable to stray from.  The switch from water as his preferred drink of choice, to liquor, is perhaps the first and best indication that he is losing his identity.  This culminates in a bizarre sex scene between himself and Mary-Lou, one which is so primal, yet so dispassionate – the clash of two separate beings, struggling for dominance.

***1/2

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 Fascinating Fact: Nicolas Roeg initially wanted author Michael Crichton, who was 6’10”, to play Thomas Jerome Newton.

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Recommended Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Don’t Look Now

Next Weekend

Movie #11

Romper Stomper Stomps

Posted: June 20, 2011 in Drama

Romper Stomper kicked my ass.  My apologies for the crassness, but there’s simply no other way to put it.  I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been expecting a minor emotional flogging – any film about the skinhead subculture is bound to be brutal and intense and unrelenting and all-up-in-the-audience’s-face – but there were times when I just had to put the movie on pause and take a break.  I’m not saying it’s a bad film – from a technical stand point, it’s well-crafted.  There’s some interesting cinematography and Daniel Pollock’s nuanced performance in juxtaposition to Russell Crowe’s psychotic one, is excellent.  It borrows heavily from A Clockwork Orange, and that’s never a bad thing.  The emotionally compromising elements instead are derived from the simple fact that, in a film about Neo-Nazis, it’s difficult to clearly identify the antagonist.

The plot revolves around several skinheads who suddenly find themselves on the defensive after a group of Vietnamese men seek revenge for the brutal beating of their fellow countrymen.  The tightly-knit gang plans their retaliation, but the group dynamic is threatened when one of the Nazis falls in love with a beautiful, seizure-prone drifter.

After some deliberation, Sears decided not to use their family portait as picture frame fill-ins.

When going to see a movie with Nazis in it, original or otherwise, it’s generally apparent who the bad guys are going to be.  They are the quintessential villains, the embodiment of evil; it’s easy to direct all one’s hatred towards them and their fictional representations.  Romper Stomper doesn’t take sides in the racewar between the Vietnamese and the skinheads, and, at times, even attempts to evoke sympathy for some of the characters.  It’s shocking. The film does not, at least, glorify the lifestyle.  These men are uncouth, violent and uneducated squatters whose soul purpose is the preservation of racial purity.  It’s hard though, to feel compassion for someone who, forty-five minutes ago, was committing hate crimes.  Yet this is exactly what Romper Stomper asks the viewer to do.  As the movie progresses and the love interest is introduced, Davey,  who eventually leaves the group altogether in order to pursue a relationship, begins to fall for her.  Suddenly, the movie has a hero, someone to root for.  The change is not believable…a sensitive skinhead is still a skinhead.

The Vietnamese are not portrayed favorably, either.  It’s true that they’re initially reluctant to retaliate; no action is taken after the first vicious attack against them.  It’s not until the second attack that they are forced to respond, and what a terrifying response it is.  As the Vietnamese citizens descend upon the warehouse in which the Neo-Nazis are residing, Romper Stomper becomes less like a drama and more like a horror movie.  The assailants claw and at the doors and siding of the building like a hoard of hungry, mindless zombies.  They become animals (the director even mixes in some animal roars here, as well as in other violent scenes), consumed by rage and driven only by the desire to do harm.  To be fair, they were unjustly provoked into such a state, but the total transformation, and the vast number of attackers (which is indicative of just how strong the foreign population has grown), seems to almost verify the Nazis’ concerns.

I’m not trying to accuse anyone involved in the making of Romper Stomper of being a racist.  There’s a very clear message here that violence fuels only more violence. However, in not taking a definite stand against such a hot-button and important topic as racism, the film becomes a little hard to swallow.

Stars: ***

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Best Quotes:

Sonny Jim: We came to wreck everything and ruin your life.  God sent us.

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Recommended Films: American History X, A Clockwork Orange

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Movie #10

The Brood is Goood…Really.

Posted: June 5, 2011 in Horror

Do not, under and circumstances, watch this movie before or after eating.  That’s a warning that should be on many of Canadian director David Cronenberg’s films, including (and especially ) The Brood, in big, bold, red letters.  Being a horror aficionado, I have a pretty high threshold for gratuitous gruesomeness and gore, but the last twenty minutes of The Brood had my stomach churning.  Unlike, say, the Saw series, whose only purpose is to expose the audience to superfluous amounts of blood and guts in order to elicit nauseated groans (and vomit), The Brood is a very intelligent movie.

After strange bruises appear on his daughter’s back, Frank Carveth decides that he will no longer allow his wife, Nola, who has been institutionalized and is being subjected to an experimental form of therapy, to see her.  Shortly after, a series of brutal murders, committed by small, malformed children, begin to take place.  The first victim?  Nola’s mother.

We represent the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild...

HERE BE SPOILERS

David Cronenberg himself has mentioned several times that this film, on a metaphorical level (I hope), is at least semi-autobiographical.  He wrote the film shortly after going through a bitter divorce and child custody battle with his first wife, and much of the movie is devoted to dysfunctional family dynamics.  There’s certainly a lot going on here.  Maternity is tainted in The Brood, reviled rather than celebrated.  Nola herself was abused by her mother, a fact which can be assumed lead to her irrevocably negative psychological state and her institutionalization.  Her uterus, a symbol of motherhood, is now outside of her, attached by a fleshy tube to her stomach.  It is from this that the brood emerges.  The mutilation of the feminine turns motherhood into something unnatural.  The children which Nola gives birth to are corrupt, lacking the innocence of youth and acting only in accordance with their mother’s damaged emotional condition.  Even her husband, Frank, considers Nola somewhat of a monster even before she reveals to him her new family.  He refuses to let her see their daughter, and blames her for the injuries he finds on their natural daughter.

Most telling though, is Nola’s relationship with and impact on her natural daughter, Candice.  The actress who plays Candice does a great job, simply because very little acting is required for the role.  For a large portion of her on-screen time, she remains stone-faced, expressionless.  She is a blank slate, ready to be molded by her parents. Despite Frank’s best efforts, Cadi’s mother is the one who ends up having the greatest impact upon her.  The final shot of the film shows the young girl beginning to develop large growths on her body, growths which eerily resemble those that were upon the body of her mother in the final scene.  Candi has not escaped unscathed by her mother’s influence.

Stars: ****1/2

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Juliana Kelly: Thirty seconds after you’re born you have a past and sixty seconds after that you begin to lie to yourself about it.

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Recommended Viewing: Don’t Look Now, The Fly (remake)

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Movie #9

More Like Interstella 3.5

Posted: May 29, 2011 in Animated

“It’s basically an animated, feature-length music video.”  This is all the information I had going into Interstella 5555, and I’ll freely admit that I wasn’t entirely thrilled about having to sit through it.  As it turned out, I had nothing to fear; Interstella 5555 definitely isn’t for everybody, but the interesting concept backed by a solid soundtrack makes it worth at least one viewing.

French House/Electronic duo Daft Punk use their album Discovery to narrate and guide the film’s plot.  There’s not a single word of dialogue in the entire sixty minutes, and sounds effects are scarcely utilized.  The plot follows a band of blue rock-star aliens as they’re kidnapped and brought to Earth.  Upon their arrival, these space Smurfs are painted white and brainwashed into believing they’re human.  Their manager, the villain of the film and the man responsible for kidnapping them, uses their extraterrestrial musicianship to produce a number one hit.  Meanwhile, back in outer space, a superfan and special forces operative begins his quest to deliver the band back to their home planet.

Chanel's new advertising campaign is really aggressive!

If you’re not already a fan of Daft Punk or anime, Interstella 5555 probably won’t make a convert of you.  A lot of the tropes of anime are present: the crazy hair, loads of melodrama (even without dialogue, this is pretty apparent), etc.  The animation is average, lacking the detailed elegance of movies like the older Akira and Princess Monoke.  It’s easy to forgive these small flaws however, as the music is really the movie’s backbone.

Discovery is arguably Daft Punk’s best album, and it’s put to great use here.  Lyrics, when they’re present, take a backseat to songs’ instrumentals, so the tone of Interstella is generally dictated by the harmony or discordance, heaviness or lightness, of the song currently playing.  It’s very effective, and the tone of a scene mostly matches that of the music.  There are a few instances though, where things don’t quite mesh.  The biggest offender here is Veridis Quo,” a relaxed, slightly classical-sounding piece which begins to play right as the intense final act of the film begins.  I also felt that there were some missed opportunities in terms of editing.  It would have been nice to see more cuts made, more actions performed, in relation to the beats of the music.  There are a few, but I felt if a greater effort had been made in this area, a more even flow could have been established and maintained.

It’s truly impressive that so much can be communicated and that an entire plot can be constructed and delivered without a single word being uttered.  There may be one or two points that are a little unclear (the manager’s plan for world domination, for one), but everything else is clearly presented and expertly constructed.  There are three acts, each with its own beginning and ending, and each escalating until the climax in the last twenty minutes.

Interstella 5555 is a unique film, built around a unique concept.  It’s certainly not perfect, but there isn’t much else like it.  You might hate it, but try giving it a chance – it’s worth it.

Stars: ***1/2

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Best Songs: “One More Time” and “Crescendolls”

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Recommended Viewing: Akira

 

Next Weekend

Movie #8